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nLight agrees megawatt laser weapon deal

07 Nov 2023

US Department of Defense award doubles value of existing contract to $171 million.

The high-power diode and fiber laser manufacturer nLight says that it will now receive $171 million from the US military to develop a megawatt-scale laser weapon - double the total originally awarded.

Back in May the Camas, Washington state, company announced details of an $86 million contract with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (OUSD), for its High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative (HELSI) project.

Additional options in the original award have now been triggered, with the second phase of the project aiming to scale the coherent beam combined architecture from 300 kilowatts, which was achieved in the initial phase, to 1 megawatt.

“This laser will be delivered in a rugged conex-compatible form factor with optional space allocations to upgrade with precision long-range tracking and adaptive optics technology,” announced the firm.

Jeff Barchers, the president of nLight’s defense systems business unit, added: “Our technology’s ability to scale power and correct for atmospheric turbulence enables nLight to deliver high-intensity beams that are precisely directed to long-range targets, maximizing the effectiveness of the laser.

“Our work on the second phase of the HELSI program will further support the broader transition of high-energy lasers into the hands of the warfighter.”

Israel engagement
Discussing the development with investors following the firm’s latest financial update, CEO Scott Keeney said that the megawatt laser would be developed over the next three years, and that the contract award would provide a significant boost to the firm’s sales revenues in 2024.

“In terms of HELSI 2 program execution, we've made excellent technical progress this far and we are achieving our key program objectives to date,” he added, also pointing out that the company was seeing additional demand for its directed energy technology from countries other than the US.

“Several of our customers and potential customers that had planned to develop their own lasers using nLight diodes have converted to purchasing nLight lasers,” Keeney said - pointing out that this translated to extra revenues for the firm.

Asked whether this related to activity in Israel as a result of the current conflict in the region, the CEO responded that nLight was “engaged with all of the key players” in the country.

Of those key players, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems is already known to be developing laser weapons in collaboration with Lockheed Martin for the proposed “Iron Beam” defensive shield to shoot down and disable hostile drones and rockets.

Around a year ago, Rafael said that it had proved the operational capability of Iron Beam, which would likely be based around 100 kW-class fiber lasers, although it is not believed that any such laser weapons have been used during the latest conflict.

If and when it is implemented, Iron Beam is expected to be far more cost-effective and operationally efficient than the current “Iron Dome” defensive shield, which relies on conventional projectiles to shoot down aerial threats.

Lockheed has itself won an award under the HELSI 2 program, and is aiming to scale its technology to 500 kW using spectral beam combining.

According to a recent US Congressional Research Service report on laser weapons, the US military's goal is to demonstrate a 500 kW system in 2025, and a megawatt-class system the following year. "Lasers of 1 MW could potentially neutralize ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons," states that report.

Design wins
For nLight's latest quarter, Keeney announced sales revenues of $50.6 million, in line with expectations but down from $60.1 million a year ago.

That translated to an operating loss of $12.5 million, similar to the figure posted this time last year, with the CEO reporting more aggressive pricing from Chinese fiber laser competitors when selling their products outside of China.

On the plus side, Keeney also pointed out some recent new design wins for metal additive manufacturing applications, and said nLight had now begun shipping lasers to what he called a “significant customer” making electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

Looking ahead, he stated that the momentum in directed energy gave him more confidence that 2024 would be a “strong growth year” for the firm, although in the near term sales would likely drop below $50 million for the December quarter.

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