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Boeing lands $16M laser weapon follow-up

08 Oct 2012

Defense contractor agrees follow-on contract with US Army Space and Missile Command for 10 kW solid-state system.

Boeing is to develop a truck-mounted 10 kW laser weapon for the US Army.

The company, one of a number of defense contractors working on different types of high-energy laser systems for the US military, has agreed a follow-on Phase II contract with the US Army Space and Missile Command valued at $16.1 million.

According to a US Department of Defense announcement, the award will support test and integration of a beam control system with the high-power solid-state laser for future use to counter rocket, artillery and mortar attacks.

Boeing will work on the project at its base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with completion expected in February 2015, while the team is expecting to conduct field tests of the high-energy laser mobile demonstrator (HEL MD) system within the next 12 months. Those tests are designed to test the system's ability to acquire, track and destroy what are described as “threat-representative targets”.

The company, which in 2010 demonstrated a 28 kW laser based on thin-disk lasers provided by the German industrial laser vendor Trumpf, added in its own announcement that the Phase II contract included an option to incorporate a more powerful system.

“The Boeing HEL MD program is applying the best of solid-state laser technology to ensure the Army has speed-of-light capability to defend against rockets, artillery, mortars, and unmanned aerial threats - both today and into the future,” said Mike Rinn, program director and VP of Boeing’s directed energy systems unit. “High-power testing represents a critical step forward for this innovative directed energy system.”

Thin-disk source
Speaking at last month’s SPIE Security + Defence symposium in Edinburgh, Boeing’s Matt Nixon said that the company had been working on high-energy lasers based on thin-disk sources since 2004, believing them to be the most scalable option to reach the 100 kW level desired by the US military for effective battlefield application.

Despite its systems being based on relatively old Trumpf commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology, by 2010 it had been able to scale the output power of a thin-disk system to 28 kW, with an efficiency of around 25%.

The weakness of the thin-disk approach is the relatively poor beam quality of the output, which would compromise the effectiveness of a laser weapon at remote distances. Boeing has responded by developing a patent-pending wavefront-mapping system that promises to reduce optical aberrations by a factor of two.

In order to reduce the size of such a system and increase efficiency from 25% to a targeted 30%, Boeing will also be adopting more advanced thin-disk sources that use additional beam passes for greater light amplification, as well as more efficient laser diodes.

Nixon told delegates in Edinburgh that the improvements should result in a 34 kW laser output, coupled with a much-improved beam quality - although computer models have suggested that a 39 kW output should be possible.

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