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Navy laser weapon goes through early tests

March 19, 2010 at 9:16 AM
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ALBUQUERQUE, March 19 (UPI) -- A new laser weapon designed for naval deployment has gone through initial design tests as one of the first steps before it is adopted for active service, most likely by the U.S. Navy before any other force.

Laser weaponry now encompasses all branches of the military with a range of laser-based defense equipment already destined for the inventories of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force.

The Boeing Co., which developed Free Electron Laser Weapon System, said the FEL was still in a preliminary design review stage, indicating it would be some time before the weapon could see deployment.

Laser weaponry packs in a huge amount of power and is seen likely to be more focused on the intended target than other kinds of weaponry using explosives.

Boeing said the preliminary design review was a key step toward building a FEL

prototype for realistic tests at sea. More than 30 U.S. government and National Laboratory representatives attended the design review March 9-11 in Arlington, Va.

The laser is being designed to operate by passing a beam of high-energy electrons through a series of powerful magnetic fields, generating an intense emission of laser light that can disable or destroy targets.

"The Free Electron Laser will use a ship's electrical power to create, in effect, unlimited ammunition and provide the ultra-precise, speed-of-light capability required to defend U.S. naval forces against emerging threats, such as hyper-velocity cruise missiles," said Gary Fitzmire, vice president and program director of Boeing Directed Energy Systems.

In that sense, defense analysts said, the laser weapon would take over tasks that would normally be assigned anti-missile missiles or other counteractive defense equipment.

"The successful completion of this preliminary design review is an important milestone in

developing a weapon system that will transform naval warfare," Fitzmire said.

In April 2009, Boeing was awarded an Office of Naval Research contract valued at up to $163 million -- with an initial task order of $6.9 million -- to begin developing FEL. The Navy is expected to decide this summer whether to award additional task orders to Boeing to complete the FEL design and build and operate a laboratory demonstrator.

Boeing Missile Defense Systems' Directed Energy Systems unit in Albuquerque and the Boeing Research & Technology group in Seattle support the FEL program. The design of the laser weapon involved partnership between the U.S. Department of Energy laboratories, academia and industry.

Boeing is developing laser systems for a variety of defense applications. Besides FEL, the systems include the Airborne Laser Test Bed, the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator and Laser Avenger, among others.

A unit of the Boeing Co., Boeing Defense, Space & Security, which has headquarters in St. Louis, is one of the world's largest defense, space and security businesses specializing in innovative and capabilities-driven customer solutions, and the world's largest and most

versatile manufacturer of military aircraft. It is a $34 billion business with 68,000

employees worldwide.

Other laser innovations in defense armament, including airborne laser, have involved Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. During a demonstration in February, a Boeing-Northrop-Lockheed laser destroyed a boosting missile in flight, the first event of its kind.

It was also the first time that any system destroyed a missile in the boost phase.

The Airborne Laser Testbed and its battle management system was fitted aboard a modified Boeing 747-400 Freighter. Northrop Grumman designed and built the laser and Lockheed Martin developed the beam control and fire control system.

Northrop explained, "While ballistic missiles like the one ALTB destroyed move at speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour, they are no match for a super-heated, high-energy laser beam racing toward it at 670 million mph."

It said the basketball-sized beam took just a few seconds to carve a stress fracture into the missile, causing it to split into multiple pieces.

ALTB has the highest-energy laser ever fired from an aircraft and is known to be the most powerful mobile laser device in the world.

The new tests for a naval laser weapon will address the need for similar weaponry to deal with seaborne threats, analysts said.

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