Type: high-altitude laser-capable interceptor UAV
Significant date: circa 2005
In 1998-99, Boeing's Phantom Works conducted the Directed Energy Applications for Tactical Airborne Combat (DE-ATAC) study, sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to review possible uses of directed-energy on tactical airborne platforms in combat. This effort identified and prioritized high payoff airborne tactical applications of directed-energy technologies including high power microwave (HPM), HEL, and kinetic energy weapons (KEW). Based on these priorities, the study formulated Air Force investment strategies in key areas of directed-energy technologies. The Phase I DE-ATAC study recommended further study for five tactical DE concepts, four dealing with HPM and a fifth addressing advanced active sensors using lasers. One of the concepts identified under the DE-ATAC Phase I study was integrating HELs on fighters for tactical operations. Due to weather concerns about its full utility, this DE concept did not go forward as part of the Phase II DE-ATAC study.
The logical next step, as suggested by the study, was to examine the utility of placing a high-energy laser on an airborne tactical platform, fighter, and uninhabited combat air vehicle (UCAV). Obviously, such an effort had to provide a clear, logical, coherent picture of how weather and environmental atmospheric conditions affect use of HELs for tactical missions. The question became how much can an airborne tactical laser expect to be employed in "weather." Consequently, this study attempted to answer the meaning of "all-weather capability" as defined by today's standards and to evaluate environmental impacts on a variety of tactical HEL missions. The study results are very encouraging. Results show that the presence of clouds and operation of a HEL fighter need not be mutually exclusive events. This study addressed what weather really means to the use of HELs for tactical fighter missions. The results clearly show, as in other U.S. Air Force tactical operations, weather is not a unique deterrent.
This Tactical High Energy Laser Fighter Study was a combined effort of aircraft industry, AFRL, and MAJCOMS (ACC/AFSOC). Five major topics were emphasized:
The study results concluded that the potential is good for both near and far-term applications of HELs on tactical platforms including its future with UAV and UCAVs. Present “state-of-art” beam control systems coupled to HELs indicates good laser pointing stability should be exhibited by compensating for the aircraft mechanical vibrations and induced turbulence within the free stream region around the tactical air platform.
Following the Phantom Works study, Lawrence Livermore National Labs—which has been a key player in anti-ballistic missile research for more than 20 years, ever since the SDI effort (see insert left)—is now working on yet another anti-missile project called Defender. It is a high altitude (>20 km) UAV with a semiconductor diode-pumped, Solid State Heat-Capacity Laser (DP-SSHCL) weapon for boost phase destruction of tactical ballistic missiles. The vehicle has a lethal kill radius of up to 200 km and is developed with the help of Scaled Composites. The remarkable miniaturization and increasing efficiency going on with SSHCL research over at Livermore might be a reasonable predictor of UAV's compactness; after scaling diode arrays and garnet crystals down so they could be carried in a Humvee vehicle (see below), LLNL and Scaled may well have developed a system small enough to be flown inside a mini-UAV.
The inception of the DP-SSHCL goes back to a Laser Science and Technology (LS&T) Program sponsored by the U.S. Army's Space Missile Defense Command (SMDC). A division of Lawrence Livermore National Labs called Photon Science & Application (PS&A) developed a high-average-power (100-kW class), diode-pumped, Solid State Heat-Capacity Laser (DP-SSHCL) suitable for use as a military weapon, in collaboration with industrial team partners including Decade Optical Systems (DOS), General Atomics (GA), PEI Electronics and Northrop Grumman Polyscientific. Since its inception, the SSHCL was designed with two major objectives in mind: provide enough power to be useful for military applications and be compact enough so that it can fit on a mobile platform. Consequently, a mobile, compact, lightweight laser system capable of being deployed on a hybrid-electric vehicle was developed. Targets would include short-range rockets, guided missiles, artillery and motor fire, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
In 2004, SSHCL achieved a world record output power (for a solid-state diode-pumped laser) of 31.3 kW. This milestone came approximately one year after the SSHCL commenced initial operation. Attaining this level of power provides significant credibility that the SSHCL is a bonafide candidate to be one of the first (if not the first) directed energy weapon to be deployed in the battlefield. The success of Livermore’s SSHCL program, which won a 2002 R&D 100 Award has led to other applications such as the Diode-Pumped Pulsed Laser for Mine Clearing (DP-PLMC), which won a 2004 R&D 100 Award for its promise of revolutionizing the practice of demining. The high-energy laser pulses generated by the DP-PLMC vaporize the residual moisture in the soil, allowing the laser pulses to effectively burrow through to the underlying mine. Once exposed, the mine can be deflagrated safely, with personnel out of harms way.
The FY2005 Defense Appropriation Bill signed by President Bush in August 2004 provides $66.2 million to support the High Energy Laser-Joint Technology Office (HEL-JTO) in Albuquerque, which oversees the allocation of defense funding for high energy laser research and development. Another sign that laser technology in military applications is but in its infancy.
Livermore's long-lasting commitment
have dreamed for years of being able to stop an incoming missile
Reagan unveiled a new vision of national security based on protecting
lives rather than threatening them. This announcement kicked off
the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—popularly known as Star Wars—that
invigorated weapons work at Lawrence Livermore National Labs for many
years to come. In the 1980s, novel nuclear and nonnuclear defense concepts
were explored by Laboratory researchers to protect the nation from
ballistic missile attack. Laboratory researchers also devised the concept
of Brilliant Pebbles for nonnuclear defense against missiles in boost
phase, as part of the SDI.