With their great range and accuracy, laser weapons don’t just destroy things. They can disrupt targets non-lethally, making them increasingly tantalizing to the defense industry.
A powerful fiber-optic laser system in development by Lockheed Martin is showing a lot of promise. In its first field test it disabled a small truck from well over a mile away, the company announced this week. Called ATHENA — short for Advanced Test High Energy Asset — the system is being built to protect military forces and infrastructure.
ATHENA burned through the small truck’s engine with pinpoint precision. The truck wasn’t driving normally but was propped up on a platform with its engine running for the test, Lockheed said. Nonetheless, it’s apparently the highest power documented by a laser weapon of its kind.
“Fiber-optic lasers are revolutionizing directed energy systems,” Lockheed’s chief technology officer, Keoki Jackson, said in a statement. “This test represents the next step to providing lightweight and rugged laser weapon systems for military aircraft, helicopters, ships and trucks.”
ATHENA uses a technique called “spectral beam combining” in which multiple laser modules together form a single high-quality beam. The technology is based on Lockheed’s earlier $32 million ADAM (Area Defense Anti-Munitions) system, built to shoot down enemy rockets in mid-air. Other companies, including Boeing, have also been working on laser systems.
The cost effectiveness of using lasers is part of their appeal, aside from their accuracy and precision. While firing a surface-to-air missile costs roughly $400,000 a pop, say Navy accountants, consider this: The Navy’s experimental laser LaWS (Laser Weapons System), which has been tested with success aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf and is authorized for use in self defense, costs a mere 59 cents a shot to deploy.
As for ATHENA laser’s strength, an everyday pointer laser is about one milliwatt. ATHENA’s 30-kilowatt laser is about 30 million times that.
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