Lockheed takes the lead in the laser weapon race


Gigantic satellites with massive destruction power provided by a huge green laser like the Death Star in Star Wars might not be so fictional. On March 3, Lockheed Martin announced it has successfully tested a 30-kilowatt fibre laser weapon system during recent field tests.

The “weapons grade” ATHENA (Advanced Test High Energy Asset) laser literally destroyed in a matter of seconds a Ford F-150 truck’s engine a mile away. With its 30-kilowatt power, the system is simply the most advanced and efficient laser weapon to date.

Based on the ADAM (Area Defence Anti-Munitions) system previously tested by the company in 2012-2013, it incorporates the 30-kilowatt Accelerated Laser Demonstration Initiative (ALADIN) fibre laser. For its part, ADAM is a High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon system, consisting of a portable 10 kilowatt fibre laser which can target and destroy small boats, UAVs and Qassam-like rockets from a 1.5 km distance.

The ADAM system can track moving targets at a range of more than 5 km, and engage targets up to 2 kilometres away. ATHENA works through a technique called “Spectral Beam Combining”: the weapon pools together a large number of fibre laser modules – i.e. lasers where the active gain medium consists of an optical fibre doped with a rare-earth element – operating at slightly different wavelengths, to form a single high quality beam while consuming half the energy of a conventional solid-state laser. The advantages of optical fibre are numerous: as they are flexible they can be coiled like a rope to take up little space; as they are thin they are easy to cool due to a large surface to volume ratio, and finally they provide a high-quality beam.

In order to destroy military targets like tanks or drones, a laser-based weapon must provide an estimated 100 kilowatts near-perfect beam maintained over long distances. Lockheed Martin can count on the experience gained through 2 other laser development programmes: the ABC (Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control) turret system project which aims at improving the accuracy of laser weapons used from military aircraft; and the HEL MD (High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator), a $25 million programme to develop a 60-kilowatt fibre laser capable of tracking and detonating incoming rockets, artillery, and mortars (C-RAM); shooting down hostile drones and detonating unexploded ordnance (including IEDs). The first is funded by DARPA and the second by the U.S. Army. It seems that the later could be fulfilled by potential future improvements of the ATHENA systems.

A number of companies providing military equipment are currently working on so-called direct energy weapons (DEW), and reporting progress. Boeing, MBDA Systems, BAE Systems, Raytheon, Rheinmetall as well as the U.S. Navy (LaWS and GBAD systems) said they were testing DEWs. Recently the UK MoD issued a public tender for its Laser Directed Energy Weapon Capability Demonstrator (LDEW CD) programme, a project aiming to further develop laser weapon technology and study their potential benefits.

Previous industry experiments successfully demonstrated target acquisition, tracking and destruction, however they were inefficient and unsuitable for field use due to their size, weak power and cooling needs.
“This test represents the next step to providing lightweight and rugged laser weapon systems for military aircraft, helicopters, ships and trucks,” stated Ray Johnson, Lockheed’s CTO. Of course it’s ultimately difficult to estimate the size of the laser-based weapon market, but it could be a massive opportunity for those companies able to seize military tenders all over the world.

Lockheed Martin has been working on the development of lasers for the past 30 years and accelerated its efforts when it bought Aculight in 2008. The company is now heavily investing in all the components necessary to build DEWs, that is to say optics, beam control, power efficiency etc. The main market for fibre laser weapons could be C-RAM systems, that is to say defensive domes against missiles, like the Iron Dome in Israel or the proposed NATO Missile Defence System for Europe.

Although still far, far away from the Death Star, laser-based weapons are likely to be less and less like science-fiction in the future. Lockheed seems to have a lead, but other domestic competitors (Boeing, Northrop, L-3, and many other foreign challengers) are quickly moving ahead.