U.S. Navy Seeks First Shipboard Laser Weapon
The Office of Naval Research wants you — to build a laser weapon.
On May 16, the Navy will be holding an "industry day," outlining to private companies what they want in a solid-state laser weapon. It's another step closer to actually building an off-the-shelf laser weapon that can be mounted a ship and used to fight against pirates, terrorists or other threats at sea.
The military has conducted proof-of-concept tests, so they know that laser weapons are possible, and they have a good idea of the technologies needed. Companies such as BAE Systems have built lasers to defend against pirates and in 2010 a laser shot down a drone at sea. Now it's a question of building one with all the specs that works in a real-world setting.
The Navy wants a laser with tunable power, so that it can be turned down to be a non-lethal weapon, but able to generate enough that it can burn a hole in the hull of a small boat. It should also be able to survive being on a ship's deck and fire many times in a short period without overheating.
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Another thing the Navy is seeking is the ability to see whether a suspicious craft if friend or foe. That requires versatile — rather like the scope on a sniper rifle.
"We want the system to be modular," said Peter Morrison, ONR's solid state laser program officer. "We want to be able to adjust the capabilities installed on it, and still have the ability to dial up the laser weapon's power to defeat threats."
All of these requirements point to a need for a solid state laser, which contains a solid material (hence the name) like a crystal or doped glass. An electrical current or light is directed at the crystal, exciting atoms inside it and releasing photons. Mirrors are used to direct those photons into a beam, producing the laser.
There are other types of lasers, such as those that use gas instead of a crystal to generate the beam. They tend to be more powerful than solid state laser, but they're also more bulky, which doesn't suit the deck of ship.
Another advantage of solid-state lasers is that they can take the heat. Roger McGinnis, ONR's innovative naval prototype program executive, added that the power levels in solid-state lasers are easier to control than in other types.
Besides putting it on a ship, Morrison said one idea is to put it on an aircraft, though the details haven't been worked out yet.
Photo: A laser weapon of the type tested as part of the Office of Naval Research-funded Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) in April 2011. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams