LOS ANGELES – Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers have developed an electric laser capable of producing a deadly 100-kilowatt ray of light, a major milestone that is expected to help transform what was once a Buck Rogers space fantasy into reality.
Announced last week, the landmark achievement – long considered a Holy Grail for weapon developers – opens the way for development of laser weapons small enough to fit in a fighter jet yet powerful enough to destroy an enemy craft in the blink of an eye.
After more than four decades of frustrations and failures, “you can now see that the battlefield applications of laser weapons are becoming a real possibility,” said Barry Watts, senior fellow and an expert on so-called directed energy weapons at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank in Washington.
Laser guns are still years from being used in combat, and it might be the middle of next decade before they are installed on fighter planes, tanks and ships.
But Northrop “proved” that a laser powered by electricity could generate a beam powerful enough to destroy targets in the battlefield, said Brian Strickland, the Army’s manager for the Joint High Power Solid State Laser program in Redondo Beach.
“This is a major milestone because we have proven that we can build it,” Strickland said.
The beam from a solid-state laser is powered by electricity, which can be generated by a jet engine or the turbines of a tank. Chemical lasers are capable of producing much more powerful beams, but because the energy output relies on the quantity of chemicals used, they take up a lot of space.
Dan Wildt, vice president of Northrop’s directed energy systems program, said few believed that an electric laser could produce a 100-kilowatt beam. Reaching even 10 kilowatts was considered a milestone just a few years ago.
“Five years ago few people believed that a solid-state laser could produce a militarily suitable 100-kilowatt beam,” Wildt said.
With the major hurdle overcome, the next step would be to take the laser from the laboratory to the field and begin shooting down missiles with it, Strickland said. The laser also would have to be scaled down and “ruggedized” so it could withstand battlefield abuse. “It is still a little heavy and a little big,” he said.
The Northrop laser produced a beam at more than 105 kilowatts, which is akin to focusing more than 1,000 100-watt light bulbs on a small spot. The intensity of the light would be comparable to that on the surface of the sun.
A secret demonstration was held for the military at Northrop’s Space Park in Redondo Beach last month and then verified by the Army before it was disclosed last week.