Battlespace Tech

Air Force looking to weaponized ultrashort pulse lasers

The military’s pursuit of effective laser weapons is entering somewhat new territory, with the Air Force’s announcement that it was to explore the use of ultrashort pulse lasers as part of its Novel EM Weapons Technologies Program.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate has issued a request for information looking to investigate, develop, and ultimately transition new ultrashort pulse lasers into future weapons systems. Further down the road, the Air Force envisions an entirely exclusive ultrashort pulse laser weapons program. 

Ultrashort pulse lasers—“ultrashort” refers to pulses ranging from femtoseconds to 10 picoseconds—have been used in the micromachining  and other industrial fields, but most military efforts at developing laser weapons have taken used other means.

One reason for exploring the use of ultrashort pulse lasers could be power requirements. While the military services are developing laser weapons, generating enough power to create a destructive beam has been something of a challenge. The Navy last year did deploy its first laser weapon in the Persian Gulf, though its 30-kilowat beam is effective mainly against drones and small boats.

However, when Army researchers experimented in 2012 with shooting lightning bolts down laser beams, they noted that an ultrashort-pulse laser needed only a modest amount of energy to create and extremely intense beam. So the Air Force could be looking to ultrashort pulse lasers to build a more powerful weapon.

For now, the Air Force is interested in research proposals from industry that will be able to meet certain skill sets to perform advisory and assistance services. Skills required by industry personnel include operation and maintenance, ability to measure laser wave lengths, diagnosis of laser imagery pulse and plasma, accounting and logging and management of hazardous materials. 

Regardless of what form they take, the Defense Department has made lasers a significant part of its future weapons plans. The Navy’s deployment of its laser weapon, called LaWS, aboard the USS Ponce is the first, but other efforts are afoot. Among them are the Army’s truck-mounted HEL laser gun and the Navy’s plans to put lasers aboard helicopters, and to mount anti-drone lasers aboard small tactical vehicles used by Marines.

A big part of the appeal of weaponized laser technology is that it is much cheaper to operate. According to a Washington Post report, the laser weapon mounted on the USS Ponce costs 59 cents per shot and supplies an unlimited supply of ammunition, provided the ship has power.. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also is exploring laser technology but less on the offensive side and more on the defensive side. DARPA recently issued a solicitation for proposals on “UV laser technology that will enable enhanced detection and discrimination of specific biological and chemical compounds using Raman spectroscopy,” as part of their Laser UV Sources for Tactical Efficient Raman (LUSTER) program. DARPA wants to explore technology that is more powerful than LED but more compact than gas and solid state lasers.  

DARPA projects that success within their LUSTER program could have positive impacts in the Joint Biological Point Detection System, Joint Biological Standoff Detection System, and Tactical Biological detectors as well as beyond the chemical and biological detection sector. DARPA awarded Palo Alto Research Center Inc. $2.8 million in February for this contract.    

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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