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Laser Blaster Gunships Closer to Flight Test

Well, it looks like Boeing has taken a step closer to making its air-to-ground laser blaster a reality with a recent test shoot from a specially-constructed C-130 sitting on the ground.

Boeing has fired a high-energy chemical laser aboard a C-130H aircraft in ground tests for the first time, achieving a key milestone for the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program.

The successful laser firing occurred May 13 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

“First firing of the high-energy laser aboard the ATL aircraft shows that the program continues to make good progress toward giving the warfighter an ultra-precision engagement capability that will dramatically reduce collateral damage,” said Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems.

After conducting a series of additional laser tests on the ground and in the air, the program will fire the chemical laser in-flight at mission-representative ground targets. The test team will fire the laser through a rotating turret that extends through the aircraft’s belly.

We wrote about this a while back after an interview with program officials during a conference call on the airborne laser program — a 747 equipped with a laser designed to shoot down ballistic missiles. Well, looks like Boeing made good on their prediction and the program remains on track to create a laser gunship.

“Later this year, we will fire the laser in-flight at ground targets, demonstrating the military utility of this transformational directed energy weapon,” Fancher said.

Last year, the high-energy laser concluded laboratory testing at Kirtland, demonstrating reliable operations in more than 50 firings.

ATL, which Boeing is developing for the U.S. Department of Defense, will destroy, damage or disable targets with little to no collateral damage, supporting missions on the battlefield and in urban operations.

Boeing’s ATL industry team includes L-3 Communications/Brashear, which made the laser turret, and HYTEC Inc., which made various structural elements of the weapon system.

– Christian

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Seen the Elephant May 19, 2008 at 2:05 pm

somehow I just don’t see the C-130 as the prototype of the X-wing fighter….

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A. Nonymous May 19, 2008 at 2:21 pm

But can you use it to bullseye womp rats?
“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”
- H. Solo

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Brian May 19, 2008 at 4:11 pm

I hear they’re going to use it to instant cook 50 tons of popcorn and teach an evil college professor a lesson.

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bobbymike May 19, 2008 at 4:53 pm

First target Keith Oberman

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Curtis May 19, 2008 at 7:20 pm

Isn’t the laser hercules supposed to have a cleaner dry chemical laser? I know that the 747 uses an older liquid fueled laser. As far as reloading and Bio procedures goes, thats the true test of the system. I’m curious as to what system they are using for power generation.

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Jack D. Ripper May 19, 2008 at 9:56 pm

This thing supposedly has a 200 mile attack radius. I wonder when they will attempt to target manned aircraft since that is the next step. Given that the speed of light is roughly 6.2usec/mile, a pilot of the targeted plane would have only a few milliseconds of response time before having gaping holes melted in his airframe.

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vince May 19, 2008 at 10:57 pm

This is more a proof of concept system. They are developing solid state lasers that will replace the chemical ones in the not so distant future. Concepts call for F35s having them as a self defense weapon against missiles. Eventually when they get them powerful enough you would see them used in the tactical strike role.

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Tom May 20, 2008 at 1:18 am

Now what would be cool is if it used liquid fuel for the laser and could be “reloaded” by a modified tanker aircraft…

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Smith May 20, 2008 at 1:38 am

For those paranoid about the dangerous chemical content of the lasers, let me point out that laser technology has progressed far beyond the liquid chemical laser - the selection stems from ABL, whose technology has already been surpassed. I would expect the technology to go to solid-state by the time it is fielded.
Also, a laser is not like a blaster from Star Wars. It can cause a TBM to fail while under the high stresses of launch, but if you hit a tank with it, what would happen? Put a black spot on the paint? Cause the crew to turn on the air conditioner? I could see it having more use against radar antennae and optical systems, but not as a general purpose weapon.

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No Name May 20, 2008 at 5:02 am

C-130 can be consider to old and slow. Need something that is fast and agile aircraft

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No Name May 20, 2008 at 5:02 am

C-130 can be consider to old and slow. Need something that is fast and agile aircraft

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Ed May 20, 2008 at 6:59 am

If they get this thing working for a combat system, then the AC-130 version would really be a Spectre. Imagine this thing firing down on the unsuspecting enemy. You wouldn’t even hear it firing, you might not even see it either.
If it can fire from the same altitude or higher than the AC-130 fires from, then you have the most accurate and silent weapon system ever devised. But more things to consider is the following:
Can the system be made lighter and smaller?
If the lighter model is possible, can it be hooked up to say a Global Hawk UAV or made still smaller to hookup to such systems as the predator or the reaper?
Could it be incorporated into the V-22 Osprey and give it a truly menacing capability?
Now for all of you to get the potential of this weapon you need to make a fist, and extend your pinky finger, while holding your pinky to the corner of your mouth and go muhuwahahaha! Do that a couple times.

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The YN1 May 20, 2008 at 7:54 am

Cmon, gimme a break.
Tryin to use the C130 like a F4 Phantom,,,,
NOT!

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Okiedude May 20, 2008 at 8:10 am

Awesome only a good year behind schedule!!!! Top notch work again Boeing.

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Alexander May 20, 2008 at 9:38 am

I agreee to many of the comments here and the fact that the C-130 is somewhat outdated. I does make sense to test it out on one, it is a very good aircraft.
What else could use it though? AC-130 is unique, there really isn’t anything else in the world like it. To start here can work, but a differnt plane should carry this.
However I like lasers. Theres a lot of them out there. I’ave heard hey’ll put them on the Ford class carrier as well as land based instalations. I wonder if they can be that powerful as to have destructive capability equal to that of more conventional weapons.

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Vstress May 20, 2008 at 10:16 am

I seem to have missed what the intended target is…

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James MacAvoy May 20, 2008 at 10:47 am

To address those who question the C130 as a firing platform for this new laser: Well, it is a new system that hasn’t been brought down to a size small enough to fit in a smaller aircraft. Duh. The chemicals that make up the laser possibly pose a danger for the crew, so the C130 gives the crew plenty of room to stay out of its way. Duh. The C130 continually proves to be an excellent firing platform, with over 40 years of experience, hardly ready for the scrapyard. Camp seems to believe that the C130 carrying the laser will be flying at treetop level. double Duh! Let’s give Boeing a chance to work the bugs out, absorb and rectify whatever problems they encounter, and try to act like you have seen the military bring out new technology before.

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James MacAvoy May 20, 2008 at 10:53 am

Gee, Vstress, with our military deployed and fighting the enemy in several countries under a variety of conditions, you can’t think of even ONE target a laser might take out? You served in the military, right?

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Camp May 20, 2008 at 12:45 pm

James MacAvoy said, “Camp seems to believe that the C130 carrying the laser will be flying at treetop level. double Duh!”
Where did I say, it would be “flying at treetop level”?
This aircraft (supposedly) will fly at an altitude around 10,000ft. with a range of 5 miles. There are these things called SAMs & Air-to-Air missiles, you know.
“How It Works: The Flying Laser Cannon”
http://www.popsci.com/military-aviation-space/article/2008-03/how-it-works-airborne-laser-cannon
Smith said,”let me point out that laser technology has progressed far beyond the liquid chemical laser”. If that were the case, wouldn’t they be putting one on a C-130?
My point is this… When lasers no longer need toxic chemicals (or at least in minute quantity), then they will become much more practical over a battlefield & people. Until then, and if used, they’ll have to have a lot of restrictions to their flight & location. It’s also a valid question to ask, what is the risk assessment during a catastrophic failure.
Heck. Countries are gearing up to ban Cluster Bombs. How hard would it be to demagogue tanks of toxic chemicals, for a laser, flying over neighborhoods & citizens. Think about all the crap Israel would catch, if they started flying one over the West Bank…. You’d never stop hearing about it.
“Cluster Bomb Ban Debated in Dublin” 19 May 2008
http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2008/05/mil-080519-voa11.htm
.
.
.
On a side note….
“German army officers allow top Taliban commander to escape … because they are not allowed to use lethal force”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1020488/German-army-officers-allow-Taliban-commander-escape-allowed-use-lethal-force.html
“If the German soldiers had opened fire they could have ended up on a murder charge.”
“The Taliban commander was known as the Bagh-lan Bomber after masterminding an attack last year in Baghlan province in which 79 people died.”
“A German defence ministry official said the incident would not change Berlin’s policy of the “principle of proportionality”. He added: “A fugitive like the Baghlan bomber is not an aggressor and should not be shot unless in self-defence.”"

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Lewis May 20, 2008 at 2:59 pm

I fail to see the usefulness of this. Of course these systems are going to be developed but their value is only for a limited time since by their very nature a ground based laser system would be much more powerful. Once the technology is reverse engineered or becomes common place I expect that these Gunships will be shot out of the sky with the very same type of laser that they are using.

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murc May 20, 2008 at 5:17 pm

congrats to boeing on the ground test firing.
BTW, whatever happened to the 747 ABL?
Are they EVER going to fire that thing at a target in the sky?!
FYI, I wish they would just stop spending money on chemical lasers…and spend all that money on solid state lasers, everyone with half a brain knows that THATS the future…not chem lasers.

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Tim May 21, 2008 at 8:36 am

Like everything, there’s a risk of failure and destruction. This is a step toward a new era of weaponry and hopefully it never gets into the wrong hands. I see potential for a really cool stelth fighter/bomber whose bombs make little to no noise- why not?
Get some!

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Ed May 21, 2008 at 9:28 am

To fully understand the potential and drawbacks of lasers as weapons, you must first understand the medium itself. Lasers offer the single most accurate line of sight potential available. Since the point does not follow the limitations of ballistics due to gravity, the weapons follows a straight path.
First off this leads to the potential usage from direct fire weaponry. From a ground component perspective, this means that range will be limited to the horizon, and that means the higher you or the target is, the longer the range can be to score a hit.
This does not mean that it has an infinite range. The ranges are finite, light, even amplified as is the case with a laser, does scatter, and that means that a laser will lose its effectiveness after a certain distance. Proof of this can be seen easily, just pull out your standard red dot laser pointer and then as a comparison try the green dot laser pointers and note the large difference in distances the pointer is capable of reaching.
In simple terms this means that Air Defense and Air Attack roles will automatically gain the most benefit from this in a weaponized form. Currently the technology for a weaponized laser is large, bulky, requires massive amounts of power and hazardous chemicals to be able to produce a damaging beam at any acceptable range. This explains easily why the systems we are seeing are housed in 747s and C-130s. The C-130 does represent a leap in capability as the C-130 is much smaller than a 747.
However, it has been tested in smaller forms. A modified Avenger has been fitted with a laser and was succesfully tested against simulated unexploded ordnance and also a missile air frame, showing a possible air to air role.
The technology is shrinking and gaining more capability, but we are still at least a Generation away from anything small enough for shoulder fired weapon that a single rifle man can carry effectively into battle.
I think we should take this with a serious look at how far technology has come that we now are even thinking of an Air to Ground capability for this in a weaponized form.

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Jeff M May 21, 2008 at 12:38 pm

Chemicals: Deuterium and Fluoride, not so extremely toxic, the fluoride is pretty toxic, but it’s the same stuff they put in the water, the nitrogen trifluoride form they use is sortof like chlorine, same stuff you sanitize your pool with, irritates the lungs and stuff, I’d rather have a canister of nitrogen trifluoride drop on my house than a bomb though, so the argument that it’s unsafe carrying it over a city is not so convincing to me. The deuterium is not toxic at all, it is not radioactive, you already have deuterium in your body from natural sources. Even inhaling the pure deuterium gas would not have a significant effect.
Chemical lasers are at least 10 times more powerful than solid state lasers (more like 20 or 30 currently), that is mainly due to their ability to expel the ultra-hot lasing medium after each shot. Sure you could make a super powerful solid state laser but it would melt after half a second, at least with the current state of things. That is the key to creating powerful solid state lasers is cooling ability. Right now they are studying two approaches, one is a flat disk lasing medium, which creates a very wide beam (think width of the duct fan in the JSF) and condenses it down into a potent beam, the other approaches uses a long fiber optic lasing medium. Last I heard they had a solid state laser at 50kw, and the goal for practical applications is 100kw, which should be reached in the next few years, it is not such a huge technical hurdle to get there, and expect those solid state lasers to be 500kw in a decade or two. There is an experimental solid state laser mountain to a humvee used to burn roadside bombs but it is only a few kw, not enough for offensive operations.
I am curious though how well these lasers work on humans targets. Burning up bombs and heavy weapons makes sense, but I’m curious what happens when you shoot a human target. If it causes serious burns and leaves the victim in pain to die minutes later, I think it would be too inhumane to use lasers on humans. They would need to “explode” whatever they shoot at, otherwise it wouldn’t be good.

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Camp May 21, 2008 at 1:47 pm

For those who are curious…
http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1221397
“Parts of the COIL
1. Singlet delta oxygen generator (SOG)
The generator is composed of a singlet-delta oxygen energy vehicle which is excited molecules from the aqueus combination of (watch out, boys and girls, do not try this at home or your now bleached hair will also explode!) potassium hydroxide and peroxide - basic hydrogen peroside (BHF), and mixed with gas-phase chlorine (and do not put this in your swimming pools, you would-be Buster Crabbs, and Esther Williams.) This is a tremendous exothermic reaction, heating up the soup, and leaving only a residue of potassium chloride, (probably not a good table salt.) Now, here is where the iodine comes in, it is injected into the air flow upstream of the supersonic nozzle to make the lasing action possible because oxygen has too much stability in this generator. The dissociation of the iodine molecules into atoms allows rapid transfer of energy. But, there are still power losses that further research seeks to remedy utilizing direct injection of iodine atoms.
2. Supersonic Nozzle
The purpose of the supersonic nozzle is to reduce the temperature in the laser cavity by means of supersonic expansion. Typical gas temperatures from chemical reactions in the COIL reach 180 degrees, Kelvin and is the source of potential inefficiencies.
3. The laser cavity
This is the place where the reaction takes place using little over 1 percent of iodine is added to the oxygen. The passing excited iodine atoms through the cavity become stimulated — giving the lasing results.”

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