Solid-State High-Energy Laser Systems

solid-state laser technology

The big leaps in solid-state laser technology have been made through the U.S. military's JHPSSL program and Northrop Grumman's work to package and ruggedize that technology. Lasers are ready for deployment now for land-based and ship-based systems for defensive purposes based on that technology. Military services are taking steps to transition technology from the laboratory to war fighters.


Gamma


Gamma is the first product in Northrop Grumman's next-generation FIRESTRIKE family of high-energy, solid-state lasers that are lighter, smaller and more rugged for military operations than previous laser systems.

The company announced Gamma in 2012 after completing an extensive series of initial tests. Conducted in the company's Redondo Beach laboratory, the tests demonstrated that the laser could burn through the skin and critical components of a target drone used to simulate anti-ship cruise missile threats to U.S. Navy ships.

The laser operated at 13.3 kilowatts for a number of shots over a total of 1.5 hours with stable performance and a beam quality that exceeded design goals, completing the initial phase of trials.

Gamma uses a "slab" architecture similar to previous Northrop Grumman high-power, solid-state lasers, such as the Joint High Power Solid State Laser and the Maritime Laser Demonstrator. The term "slab laser" refers to a class of high-power, solid-state lasers with a gain medium, or source of atoms that emit light, in the form of a slab about the size of a microscope slide.

Gamma is the first product in Northrop Grumman's next-generation FIRESTRIKEDeveloped with internal funding, Gamma's real achievement is in its packaging and ruggedness. The Gamma demonstrator is built in a form factor that implements the size and weight reduction goals of the FIRESTRIKE™ design, which cuts the weight of the finished laser chain to 400 pounds and shrinks the volume to 23 inches by 40 inches by 12 inches, or about the size of two countertop microwave ovens.

The Gamma demonstrator is a single "chain" or building block that is designed to be combined with other chains to create laser systems of greater power, as was demonstrated in Northrop Grumman's 105 kilowatt Joint High Power Solid State Laser.

The laser has also been ruggedized to demonstrate readiness to begin transition to operational use. Lessons from the company's 50,000-plus lower power laser devices in operation with the Defense Department were applied to Gamma to make it survivable in real-world operational environments and keep operating reliably.

Gamma also was designed for manufacturability and reduced cost. The laser leverages lessons learned from previous laser builds, combining multiple functions into simplified packages, enabling a significant reduction in the number of internal optical components, while reducing sensitivity to battlefield environmental conditions. Key portions of the Gamma laser were subjected to vibration, shock and thermal testing to validate that these improvements have achieved design goals.

The Gamma demonstrator is a single "chain" or building block that can be coherently combined into laser systems of greater power. The laser also is designed as a line replaceable unit, optimized for spares and field replacement.


Joint High Power Solid-State Laser


In 2009, Directed Energy Systems reached new heights with its scalable building block approach for compact, electric laser weapons when it produced the most powerful light ray created by an electric laser at that time, measured at more than 105 kilowatts (kW) under the U.S. military's Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) program. The achievement included turn-on time of less than one second and continuous operating time of five minutes, with very good efficiency and beam quality.

This achievement was particularly important because the 100kW threshold had been viewed as a proof of principle for 'weapons grade' power levels for high-energy lasers. Many militarily useful effects can be achieved by laser weapons of 25kW or 50 kW, provided this energy is transmitted with good beam quality.

Northrop Grumman's approach leverages compact, 15kW "building blocks" that can be combined readily to meet the mission at hand. "Mission selectable power" doesn't require new physics to build lasers with "scalable" power." The economies of replication make production predictable, and field servicing becomes a matter of plug-and-play.

Capabilities provided by JHPSSL can address many missions for deployed forces, to include self defense from threats as diverse as rockets, artillery, mortar, swarming boats, UAVs, aircraft, and cruise missiles. It can also enable ultra-precision strike, from a variety of ground, sea, or air-based platforms, to enable prosecution of enemy targets, while minimizing the risk of collateral damage.

The JHPSSL program is funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology; Office of the Secretary of Defense – High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office, Albuquerque, N.M.; Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.; and the Office of Naval Research, Arlington, Va. Responsibility for program execution is assigned to the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command / Army Forces Strategic Command in Huntsville, Ala.

Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment

In 2010, the Army selected JHPSSL to be integrated with the beam control and command and control systems from another Northrop Grumman-built system, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL), to provide the Army with the world's first high-power, Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment (SSLTE).

The SSLTE will be used to evaluate the capability of a 100kW-class solid-state laser to accomplish a variety of missions. Those results will be the basis for directing future development of solid-state lasers as a weapon system.

The company has a lead role in integrating and operating the Army's solid-state laser test bed. It brings substantial expertise to this project from many years of experience building and demonstrating tactically-relevant laser systems.


Maritime Laser Demonstration


Directed Energy Systems in April 2011 successfully showed how laser weapons can protect the U.S. Navy's fleet from small boat threats. In Pacific Ocean tests, employees fired the Maritime Laser Demonstrator from a moving Navy test ship over a three-day period, tracking and setting on fire multiple, small, unmanned boat targets.

Directed Energy Systems The laser weapon, built for the Office of Naval Research, was fired at high power more than 35 times, using only the test ship's electricity. The Maritime Laser Demonstrator withstood actual maritime conditions that Navy ships operate in daily, including eight-foot waves, winds of 25 knots, rain and fog.

The open ocean tests, conducted off San Nicolas Island at a Navy test range, accomplished several directed energy "firsts." The Maritime Laser Demonstrator became the:

  • First Navy laser system to go to sea, installed on a decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer, for the program's culminating demonstration;
  • First Navy laser system to be integrated with a ship's radar and navigation system; and
  • First electric laser weapon to be fired at sea from a moving platform. Other tests of solid-state lasers for the Navy have been conducted from land-based positions.

Results of the at-sea tests will be used by the Navy to help guide engineering manufacturing development phase of a Navy laser weapon system and transition it to a program of record for up to eight classes of ships the Navy has identified as likely platforms.


Robust Electric Laser Initiative


Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI)

Compact, Lightweight, Efficient

Under a new DoD program called the Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI), Northrop Grumman will leverage its high-energy solid-state laser successes to advance electric laser technology for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The result will enable next-generation laser weapons applications for all services and agencies.

Improved efficiency and beam quality

RELI seeks to increase system efficiency to greater than 30 percent while generating excellent beam quality.

High efficiency, combined with a compact, lightweight fiber-based system, enables new mission capabilities and integration onto limited payload platforms. Improved beam quality equates to better focus of the laser on a target at longer range, which is beneficial for a range of military missions.

This next generation of high-energy laser technology uses fiber lasers derived from commercial fiber laser technology, which has progressed rapidly, providing enhanced military supportability and affordable lifecycle costs.

Scalable, affordable approach

Northrop Grumman will demonstrate our compact 25kW approach, coherently combining laser beams into a single output beam, then prove its traceability to a field-ready laser weapon system. RELI’s scalable architecture is suited for scaling the power toward a 100kW-class weapon system while maintaining good beam quality.

RELI will deliver efficiency, reliability and affordability into a fieldable system. Its advanced packaging can be tailored for various platforms across all military services and other Defense Department initiatives.

RELI joins the family of laser systems developed by Northrop Grumman that advance laser technology and efficiency to protect and strengthen our troops.


Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment


Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL)The Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) developed by Northrop Grumman is being integrated with the beam control and command and control systems of the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), N.M., to provide the Army with the world's first high-power, Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment (SSLTE).The company has a lead role in integrating and operating SSLTE.

The SSLTE will be used to evaluate the capability of a 100kW-class solid-state laser to accomplish a variety of missions. Those results will be the basis for directing future development of solid-state lasers as a weapon system.

Solid-state lasers have achieved militarily useful power levels and packaging densities. Northrop Grumman has been demonstrating laser performance at White Sands Missile Range and other test sites for many years, unequivocally proving their lethality against a wide variety of potential threats. These include missiles of various sizes and speeds, helicopters, drones, rockets, artillery, mortar rounds and submunitions.

Both the relocation of the JHPSSL Phase 3 device and the THEL facility refurbishment are being carried out under an Army contract with BAE Systems, which has overall responsibility for the SSLTE systems engineering and test planning. BAE Systems is also developing a modular and transportable enclosure to house the JHPSSL device and its control room at the site.


Strategic Illuminator Laser


Strategic Illuminator LaserFunded by the Missile Defense Agency, Strategic Illuminator Laser (SILL) is a diode-pumped, solid-state, next-generation illuminator laser. In 2006, SILL met all technical performance requirements when it demonstrated multi-kilowatt-class average output power, operating at 5 kHz, with outstanding beam quality for a run time of five minutes. The tests proved that the SILL is the highest power, brightest laser of its kind ever built.

Illuminator lasers are critical components of all high energy laser weapon systems. They are used in conjunction with tracking sensors to help point the laser weapon at the target. They also are used in conjunction with wavefront sensors to help clean up distortion in the laser beam caused by the atmosphere and other parts of the weapon's optical system so that the beam can be focused to a smaller spot at the target.

The SILL program began in April 2003 with a competitive Phase 1 trade study, and the SILL Phase 2 program initiated a significant risk reduction effort designed to demonstrate the technologies necessary to obtain higher power and excellent beam quality simultaneously. Additional work in Phase 2 focused on component ruggedization and packaging designs needed for a compact, lightweight brassboard.

The current phase, Phase 3, takes these technologies to the next level in the fabrication, integration and test of a deliverable, compact, lightweight brassboard device.


Vesta


VestaExpected to greatly shorten the timeline for lasers to go from the laboratory onto the battlefield, Vesta's critical features are high power, excellent beam quality, and long run time — all packaged into a compact laser device that represents significant reductions in size and in the weight of the laser from previous systems.

Beam quality refers to how well the beam can be focused, ultimately defining how much of the beam can be projected onto a target. Since it offers a groundbreaking combination of excellent beam quality and high power, Vesta can place an unprecedented level of power onto a targeted spot.

Potential uses include force protection of fixed-site critical assets, ground maneuver forces, ships and aircraft as well as precision strike by manned and unmanned aircraft.

Vesta:

  • Demonstrates a "beam quality" or brightness of less than 1.3 times the theoretical diffraction limit. By comparison, a typical industrial laser for welding would have a beam quality exceeding 20. Weapon system applications typically seek beam qualities of 1.5 to 2. Beam qualities less than 1.5 for high-power lasers are considered outstanding.
  • Operates at a power of 15 kilowatts continuous run time
  • Is designed to operate at this power and beam quality level indefinitely — even demonstrating more than 20 minutes of continuous operation with no degradation.

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