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Southland Defense Companies Homing In on Laser Weapons

Laboratories make significant strides in developing technology that some say could revolutionize warfare.

October 20, 2002|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

Turning a Buck Rogers fantasy into reality, Southern California defense companies are on the verge of building a laser weapon small enough to fit on a fighter jet, yet powerful enough to destroy an enemy aircraft at the blink of an eye.

After more than four decades of doggedly pursuing the elusive technology, engineers working in at least three laboratories around the Southland have been quietly developing high-powered, solid-state lasers that some defense analysts say could revolutionize warfare.

The laser guns are still years away from being used in combat and won't play any role if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq. In fact, it may be the end of the decade before they are installed on fighters, tanks and destroyers.

But laser scientists say significant technical challenges recently have been overcome, transforming laser weapons from a laboratory project into a promising part of the U.S. arsenal.

With such lasers, a fighter jet could destroy ground targets with pinpoint accuracy, significantly reducing the chance of injuring civilians.

A Navy ship could use the laser, with its beam traveling at the speed of light, to fend off even the fastest missiles. And ground troops could use a Humvee-mounted version of the weapon to instantly knock out incoming enemy artillery and mortar shells.

"This is not a pipe dream anymore," said Chaunchy F. McKearn, director for high-energy laser programs at Raytheon Corp. in El Segundo, where a laboratory recently was built to put together a table-size solid-state laser weapon. "The glacier is finally moving."

Besides Raytheon, other large defense contractors working to build laser weapons at their Southland facilities include TRW Corp. in Redondo Beach and Boeing Co. in the San Fernando Valley. Southern California is also home to HRL Laboratories in Malibu, where the first laser was built 42 years ago and continues to be the foremost center for solid-state laser research.

Raytheon already is working with Lockheed Martin Co. to outfit the next-generation fighter jet, known as the Joint Strike Fighter, with a solid-state laser. Lockheed officials said they are considering modifying the short takeoff-vertical landing version of the plane to carry a 100-kilowatt laser gun. The weapon would be powered by electricity generated by the jet engine and used mainly to defend the warplane from missiles.

Raytheon also is teaming with Northrop Grumman Corp. to outfit the next-generation Navy destroyer, dubbed DDX, with a laser that would use the ship's electric drive to power a laser-based air-defense system.

TRW, which has about 500 engineers working on laser programs, has been exploring the possibility of developing a laser that would fit in a casing the size of an external fuel tank. It could then be attached under the wings of fighter jets, much like a missile or a bomb.

At Boeing's Integrated Defense unit in West Hills, engineers are working on advanced tactical lasers that could fit on the company's V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and other helicopters to take out short-range targets.

The word "laser" is an acronym that stands for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation." The technology turns atomic particles into light with enough radiation to damage an object it encounters.

The range and severity of the damage depend on how much power can be generated and how well the light can be focused on the target.

Solid State vs. Chemical

The beam from a solid-state laser is powered by electricity, which can be generated by a gas-powered jet engine or the turbines of a tank.

Chemical lasers are capable of producing much more energy, but because the energy output relies on the quantity of chemicals used, they take up a lot of space.

The laser's potential as a weapon was recognized when it was conceived in 1957, but development has been slow. Critics had been skeptical of claims made by defense contractors regarding laser technology because the companies have long promised more than they have delivered.

Yet John Pike, director of, a defense research firm that often criticizes weapons programs as impractical, said solid-state laser weapons technology finally appears to be moving from "pure physics to engineering."

"They're starting to talk about specific platforms and specific missions for the lasers," Pike said. "They are getting close enough that they can actually ask for money with some confidence that they can deliver on what they promised."

Although the Pentagon has emphasized development of chemical lasers, the focus in the last year has begun to shift to solid-state variants, which would be easier to package and transport. Low-power solid-state lasers are used in a variety of commercial applications, from compact disc players to grocery store scanners.

The Holy Grail

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