Fast Pulse Laser Weapons Could Be The Future Of The Pentagon – Breaking Down Defense Breaking Defense
It’s an old joke in defense circles that laser weapons are the technology of the future, and always will be. But to Pentagon planners, the dream of directed energy capabilities finally seems to be coming true. In a new analysis, however, Joe Shepherd, vice president of energy innovation led as Booz Allen Hamilton, argues that the department may be investing in the wrong field of study for this crucial capability.
Most of the Pentagon’s current directed energy weapon research is directed to continuous wave lasers, which use a relatively weak high-energy beam to burn out optical sensors or gradually cause other property damage. But defense leaders are increasingly interested in Ultrashort Pulse Lasers (USPLs), incredibly powerful beams fired for a tiny fraction of a second to vaporize a small portion of a target’s surface or disrupt its electronics.
As the U.S. military seeks new layers of air defense to repel swarms of drones and hypersonic missiles, it should devote more funds to fulfilling the USPL’s promise.
The intense nature of USPL beams – a trillion watts shot for a quadrillionth of a second – offers both advantages and obstacles. While kilowatt-class continuous wave beams become more diffuse as they pass through the atmosphere, a much more intense USPL beam breaks down molecules and ionizes nitrogen and oxygen atoms. This creates a kind of plasma channel that keeps the beam focused and effective over a longer range.
But a USPL beam also turns a small part of its target surface into plasma. Unless this new plasma has time to dissipate, it will act as a shield against subsequent impulses. This effect has been studied for decades, but research is underway to examine whether a series of pulses fired in very short succession can hit a fast moving aerial target before the shield can form.
As with other forms of directed energy, development is needed to reduce the size, weight, power requirements, cooling and cost of the SPUI. The world’s three most advanced USPL systems, developed under the Extreme Light Infrastructure initiative in Europe, are each the size of a building. Those at research universities such as the University of Nebraska and the University of Central Florida are made up of multiple optical benches, each weighing a ton. Still, the Linear Acceleration Lab at Stanford University and the University of Nebraska’s Extreme Light Lab are finding ways to make USPL and other directed energy systems smaller and more powerful.
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As is the case with many emerging advanced technologies, a lot of time and money is spent on basic and applied research – mainly in universities and national laboratories – to raise the level of readiness of sub-technology. underlying. This is certainly true for USPL capabilities. We anticipate that as more mature laser applications (eg, semiconductor and continuous wave) become an accepted part of our fighters’ arsenal, so will promising technologies such as USPL. And with this demand will come the targeted efforts for the development of related advanced technologies and the development of advanced components, to include operational prototypes. All this is possible over a horizon of 10 to 15 years.
The United States has been a leader in directed energy research for decades; the world’s first petawatt laser was developed at the National Ignition Facility, and the Department of Energy sponsored the development of the USPL at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. But much of the current growth in USPL research and development is currently in Europe, with the consortium of research centers ELI, and in Asia, with a new multi-petawatt laser center inaugurated in Shanghai. It is vital that US leadership be maintained, as the first nation to effectively bring this technology to the ground will hold a distinct military advantage.
Part of the answer is more money. While domestic funding for USPLs has steadily increased in Europe and Asia, budgets have remained stable or declining in the United States. The Pentagon’s 2022 budget request would cut funding for directed energy research from about $ 1.2 billion this year to $ 915 million next year. Instead, we should increase directed energy funding to $ 2 billion. This would signal our country’s commitment and encourage industry and academia to carry out ever more innovative work in this area.
It is only with sustained and focused engagement that America can realize the potential of the USPL on the battlefield and provide the necessary layers of an effective national defense apparatus essential to protect our interests and of our security.
Joe Shepherd is Vice President of Led Energy Innovation at Booz Allen Hamilton.