Subscribe via RSS

Archives by Date
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009

See all Archives
Newsletters
Archives by Date
'Canes
Afghan Update
Ammo and Munitions
Armor
Around the Globe
Av Week Extra
Axe in Iraq (and Elsewhere)
Bizarro
Blimps
Blog Bidness
Body Armor Blues
Bomb Squad
Brownshoes in Action
Bubbleheads, etc.
Cammo Green
Catch the "Buzz"
Chem-Bio
Civilian Apps
Cloak and Dagger
Commandos
Comms
Contingency Ops
Cops and Robbers
Cyber-warfare
Data Diving
Defense Tech Poll
Defense Tech Radio
Dissent Tech
Door Kickers
Drones
DT Administrivia
Eat DT's Dust
Extra! Extra!
Eye on China
Fast Movers
FCS Watch
Fire for Effect
FOS Files
Friday Funnies
Gadgets and Gear
Going Green
Grand Ole Osprey
Ground Vehicles
Guns
Homeland Security
In the Weeds with Eric
Info War
Iraq Diary
Jarhead Jazz
JSF Watch
Just War Theories
Lasers and Ray Guns
Less-lethal
Logistics
Los Alamos and Labs
M4 Monopoly
Medic!
Mercs
Missiles
Money Money Money
Most Wanted
MRAP Edge
Net-Centric
Nukes
Old Skool
Our Shrinking Planet
Planes, Copters, Blimps
Podcast
Politricks
Polmar's Perspective
Popular Mechanics
Rapid Fire
Raptor Watch
Red Team
Retro-Futuro
Robots
Roll Your Own
Sabra Tech
Ships and Subs
Snipertech
Soldier Systems
Space
Special Ops
Star Wars
Strategery
Stray Trons
Tactical Development
Terror Tech
The Deadlies
The Defense Biz
The Peoples' Site
The Sunday Paper
The Tanker Tango
The View from Av Week
Those Nutty Norks
Training and Sims
Trimble on the Case
Video Lounge
War Update
Ward'z Wonderz
You can run...

See all Archives
Related Links
News and Intel
Military.com News
From The Front: Christian Lowe
Aviation Week
Natl Defense Mag
Strategy Page
Global Security Newswire
Soldiers for the Truth
Security News
Defense Review
Fed Comp Week

Security Sources
GlobalSecurity.Org
Fed of American Scientists
Ctr for Strategic & Intl Studies
Ctr for Defense Info
Defense and the National Interest
Instit for Sci & Intl Security
Secrecy News
POGO
Cryptome
The Memory Hole
Natl Security Archive

Geeks and Mad Scientists
Slashdot
Wired News
Security Focus
The Register
Gizmodo
Geek Press
Robots.Net
Cosmic Log
Space Daily
New Scientist
TechCentralStation
Engadget
Space.Com
Technology Review
Gyre
Near Near Future

Bloggers and Buddies
Phil Carter
Global Guerillas
Jeffrey Lewis
Belmont Club
Back to Iraq
Laura Rozen
Juan Cole
Ryan Singel
Josh Marshall
Cursor
Boing Boing
InstaPundit
Winds of Change
Tapped
Steve Gilliard
TalkLeft
Brad DeLong
Max Sawicky
Gene Healy
Clive Thompson
Greg Djerejian
Workbench
Electrolite
Jim Henley
Kathryn Cramer
Sensors blog
Tom Shachtman
PoliceLink.com
NursingLink.com

Official Dispatches
DARPA
AF Research Lab
Marine War Lab
Soldier Systems Ctr
Naval Research
Army Research Lab
UK Def Sci Lab
NASA News
DoJ Cybercrime

Military Network
Military Benefits
Veteran Employment
GI Bill Express
Personnel Locator
Free ASVAB
The Few
Fred's Place
Army Insider
Navy Insider
Air Force Insider
Marine Corps Insider
Coast Guard Insider



Edited by Christian Lowe | Contact

Battlefield May Soon See Frickin' Lasers

death star.jpgWired reports:

Huge news for real-life ray guns: Electric lasers have hit battlefield strength for the first time -- paving the way for energy weapons to go to war.

In recent test-blasts, Pentagon-researchers at Northrop Grumman managed to get its 105 kilowatts of power out of their laser -- past the "100kW threshold [that] has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for 'weapons grade' power levels for high-energy lasers," Northrop's vice president of directed energy systems, Dan Wildt, said in a statement....

The battlefield-strength breakthrough is just one part in a larger military push to finally make laser weapons a reality, after decades of unfulfilled promises. The Army recently gave Boeing a $36 million contract to build a laser-equipped truck. Raytheon is set to start test-firing a mortar-zapper of its own. Darpa is funding a 150 kilowatt laser project that is meant to be fitted onto "tactical aircraft."

Hmph. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe in lethality via high-velocity iron. Lasers sound cool enough, but furiously pushing to deploy them on the battlefield gives me this "someone watched too much Star Trek" vibe -- like there's a secret cabal of Pentagon geeks out there trying to make the Star Fleet a reality.

So the benefits are... what? Ammunition becomes obsolete, logistics simplify. IEDs will be safer to clear and incoming mortars easier to pluck from the skies. And no doubt the nifty -however pricey- airborne laser would be formidable, if it works as advertised.

But even Boeing, one of the technology's most vociferous advocates, seems a bit dubious on the awesome factor for battlefield energy weapons, bragging: "...the system also took a step toward demonstrating a counter-unmanned aerial vehicle capability by destroying two small unmanned aerial vehicles that were stationary on the ground."

Two parked UAVs eh? Suppose the broad-side of a barn was unavailable for targeting.

So color me skeptical. No doubt there's some practical warfighting application here, but when I picture Star Wars-esque blaster fights, I can't help but to picture smirking insurgents holding up their bathrooms mirrors as body armor. Though as a matter of record, I will gladly eat my words if Boeing discovers a way to fix these things to a shark's head.

--John Noonan

ABL Fires Death Ray at Simulated Missile

ABL-illustration.jpg

Boeing announced today another successful test shoot of its Airborne Laser prototype.

This time technicians fired the laser using its tracking and control system to guide the beam through the nose-mounted turret at a simulated missile target.

Of course, this was all done on the ground.

It won't be until next year that the system will engage a missile target while both are in flight. But the news reminds us that behind the scenes, the ABL program -- and its offshoots -- are making quiet progress toward eventual fielding of a no-joke flying laser cannon.

Release follows in part:

During the test at Edwards Air Force Base, the laser beam traveled through the beam control/fire control system before exiting the aircraft through the nose-mounted turret. The beam control/fire control system steered and focused the beam onto a simulated ballistic-missile target.

"This test is significant because it demonstrated that the Airborne Laser missile defense program has successfully integrated the entire weapon system aboard the ABL aircraft," said Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. "With the achievement of the first firing of the laser aboard the aircraft in September, the team has now completed the two major milestones it hoped to accomplish in 2008, keeping ABL on track to conduct the missile shootdown demonstration planned for next year."

Michael Rinn, Boeing vice president and ABL program director, said the next step for the program is a series of longer-duration laser firings through the beam control/fire control system.

"Once we complete those tests, we will begin demonstrating the entire weapon system in flight," Rinn said. "The team is meeting its commitment to deliver this transformational directed-energy weapon system in the near term."

-- Christian

Navy Wants Lots of Lasers

laser.jpg

The Office of Naval Research held its annual partnership with industry conference last week here in Washington, DC. The envelop-pushing Navy lab is particularly keen on developing “game changing” laser beam and hypervelocity rail gun weapons. Much of the available funding is for early phase modeling and simulation. Some of ONR’s high-priority research areas include:

Solid-State Fiber Laser. Defined by ONR as: “A laser in which the active gain medium is an optical fiber doped with rare-earth elements such as erbium, ytterbium, neodymium, dysprosium, praseodymium and thulium.” Okay. ONR says a fiber laser is the way to go for a 100 kW laser weapon that could fit into aircraft pods.

Free Electron Laser. A shipboard point defense weapon, the laser will fight off swarms of both high end anti-ship cruise missiles and low-tech, explosive laden small boats. The trick will be developing controllable laser beam strength for “graduated lethality and speed of light engagement.” An Innovative Naval Prototype program is scheduled to begin in 2010.

High-Power Microwave Directed Energy Weapons. A focused microwave beam transmits high levels of energy via concentrated radio waves that will knock out computers, sensors, most anything electronic. So far, ranges have been limited by weak projectors and a cluttered environment, but newer, compact high-power microwaves under development may eventually produce a “destructive” capability.

The Revolutionary Approach to Time-Critical Long Range Strike (RATTLRS) Program. An ONR, DARPA, Air Force and NASA collaboration, started in 2004, to build a faster than Mach 3 air-breathing cruise missile. ONR says building the high Mach turbine engine remains a challenge.

Next Generation Integrated Power Systems. With a multitude of power hungry electrical and automated systems, including propulsion, launchers, sensors, countermeasures and ultimately high-powered weapons, running simultaneously, shipboard power management and supply will require smaller, lighter, quieter, cooler running and stealthy batteries and generators. As with the rest of the world, the Navy seeks solutions to the battery limitation challenge.

Electromagnetic Railgun. A rail gun uses magnetic rails instead of an explosive charge to accelerate a solid projectile to super high velocities, around Mach 7, promising accurate strikes on targets out to 230 miles with damage inflicted by the projectile’s kinetic impact. ONR set a world record this year with its laboratory gun for the highest electromagnetic muzzle energy launch of a projectile – 10 megajoules (I’m told a hand grenade is equivalent to somewhere around 1 megajoule). Drawing enough power - around 3 million amps per shot - to fire the guns remains a distinct challenge, particularly onboard smaller destroyer sized vessels. Finding strong enough material to build barrels that can stand up to repeated firings at such high muzzle energies pose another challenge.

ONR is funding research into enabling technologies for next generation air-launched missiles, including: new rocket motors using solid propulsion technologies, low erosion nozzles, pulse motors and advanced radomes designed for ultra-high speeds.

Laser-based Landing Aids. A new start (for 2009) Enabling Capability, the program will develop laser terrain video imaging that can spot obstacles or uneven terrain for helicopter pilots trying to land in brown-out conditions. The hoped for system will be compact, lightweight and rugged.

-- Greg Grant

Laser Gunship Zaps Target

buck-rogers.jpg

It's interesting that this should come out now because I was just talking to Ward after his glorious showing on Fox News Channel where he discussed the airborne laser program that I thought the real leap in this arena was with the tactical laser being incorporated onto a C-130.

Well, it turns out, the program office just had another successful test of the system, this time running through all the components of the laser generating device, through its targeting system and onto a target.

Sure, the test was on the ground, but come on, it's a laser gun for crying out loud. Looks like the Boeing team that's running this show put the whole kit and kaboodle on the airplane and basically ran through an entire firing procedure without being actually in the air.

From Boeing:

During the test Aug. 7 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., the ATL aircraft, a C-130H, fired its high-energy chemical laser through its beam control system. The beam control system acquired a ground target and guided the laser beam to the target, as directed by ATL's battle management system. The laser passes through a rotating turret on the aircraft's belly.

"By firing the laser through the beam control system for the first time, the ATL team has begun to demonstrate the functionality of the entire weapon system integrated aboard the aircraft," said Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. "This is a major step toward providing the ultra-precision engagement capability that the warfighter needs to dramatically reduce collateral damage."

After conducting additional tests on the ground and in the air, the program will demonstrate ATL's military utility by firing the laser in-flight at mission-representative ground targets later this year.

Again, while the ABL program is interesting based on its scale, the ATL seems to me has many more real-world applications than the ABM one. I'll be interested to see the real capabilities of the ATL system later this year -- how does it deal with enemy personnel and equipment? Are we Star Wars here or Buck Rogers?

-- Christian

Now It's ABL's Turn

ABL.jpg

After last week's tac-laser test, looks like laser missile defense is moving closer too...

From Boeing:

The Boeing Company [NYSE: BA], industry teammates and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency achieved another significant milestone for the Airborne Laser (ABL) missile defense program this month by completing the first laser activation testing on the ground at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

The final plumbing and wiring installations will be completed in the coming weeks. All major components of the weapon system, including the battle management system, laser components, and beam control/fire control system, were installed earlier.

Laser activation testing is a methodical process to ensure ABL's high-energy chemical laser has been properly integrated aboard the aircraft and is ready to produce enough power to destroy a ballistic missile. The tests first flow water or other inert substances through the laser to verify its integrity. Next, the laser's chemicals flow through the laser to confirm sequencing and control.

When the activation tests are complete, ground firings of the laser will occur, followed by flight tests of the entire ABL weapon system. The test phase will culminate in an airborne intercept test against a ballistic missile in 2009.

The ABL aircraft consists of a modified Boeing 747-400F whose back half holds the high-energy laser, designed and built by Northrop Grumman. The aircraft's front half contains the beam control/fire control system, developed by Lockheed Martin, and the battle management system, provided by Boeing.

I sincerely wish Boeing luck on this one. It seems incredibly complicated and sort of a niche capability that in an era of tightening Pentagon budgets might be seen as overkill. But to the extent the program enhances US knowledge of high-end lasers, it's a good program to have around.

-- Christian

Laser Blaster Gunships Closer to Flight Test

atl-gunship.jpg

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

Laser Gunship Revealed

atl-gunship.jpg

So, a few months ago you might remember we talked about a series of tests of Boeing's airborne laser - a massive, Rube Goldberg contraption housed in a 747 freighter aimed at knocking down ballistic missiles.

During a phoner press conference, Boeing officials mentioned in passing they were working on another system that could engage ground targets. To me, this seems far more logical for such a weapon than one that's designed to knock out missiles...that mission strikes me as redundant.

Well, now it seems Boeing has taken the first step in making the laser gunship a reality by installing the weapon on a C-130H...

Boeing completed the laser installation Dec. 4 at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The laser, including its major subsystem, a 12,000-pound integrated laser module, was moved into place aboard the aircraft and aligned with the previously-installed beam control system, which will direct the laser beam to its target.

With the laser installed, Boeing is set to conduct a series of tests leading up to a demonstration in 2008 in which the program will fire the laser in-flight at mission-representative ground targets to demonstrate the military utility of high-energy lasers. The test team will fire the laser through a rotating turret that extends through the aircraft's belly.

"The installation of the high-energy laser shows that the ATL program continues to make tremendous progress toward giving the warfighter a speed-of-light, precision engagement capability that will dramatically reduce collateral damage," said Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems.

"Next year, we will fire the laser at ground targets, demonstrating the military utility of this transformational directed energy weapon."

I just love the idea that a JTAC could soon call in for a laser strike on a target. Move over Spectre, say hello to the new "Vulcan" cannon (Star Trek reference here).

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 Advanced Tactical Laser industry team includes L-3 Communications/Brashear, which made the laser turret, and HYTEC, Inc., which made various structural elements of the weapon system.

Can't wait to see the test shoot next year...

-- Christian

Laser Plane Moves Closer to Missile Kill Test

FL_airbornelaser_090507.jpg

A program to develop a massive missile-killing laser housed in a 747 freighter celebrated another milestone last month with a successful test of its fire control and tracking system on a simulated target.

The Airborne Laser program - a joint venture between defense giants Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman - identified, tracked and fired a low-powered laser at a reflector attached to an NC-135E Big Crow research aircraft during tests that ended August 23, one of the final hurdles before a live-fire "lethal demonstration" is conducted in 2009.

"The program remains on track to complete a lethal demonstration in 2009 that will validate the unique contribution ABL can bring to an integrated ballistic missile defense system as a boost phase element," said Greg Hyslop, Boeing program manager for ABL during a Sept. 4 telephone interview. "We stand on the verge of fully demonstrating a revolutionary warfighting capability - the ability to defend ourselves and our friends and allies with light."

But while program officials are touting their latest test and previewing the big event to come in '09, the ABL program remains in budgetary limbo. Congressional defense authorizers slashed the 2008 ABL budget by about $250 million, a cut that would in effect delay the shoot-down test by two years.

One of the factors that surely weighs on lawmakers as they allocate funds for a wide range of defense projects - including billions for the expansion of the Army and Marine Corps, new Air Force fighters and Navy ships - is the ABL's strategic-level sticker price. At an estimated $1.5 billion per aircraft, a seven-plane squadron comes at a hefty price for a capability that many see as extremely controversial.

"We continue to inform Congress on the status of the program and how far we've come ... that the program has yet to have a technical challenge that we haven't been able to overcome," Hyslop said. "We need the president's budget request to stay on track."

The laser plane includes a "megawatt class" high-energy chemical laser designed to shoot down the kind of missiles fired from countries like North Korea or Iran. The laser targets the missile's fuel tank, taking advantage of pressure and velocity to "unzip" the rocket, rendering it powerless during its initial flight.

"The internal pressure and aerodynamic forces, once the wall is weakened, is what actually destroys the missile," Hyslop explained.

Officials say systems for handling the chemicals that are used to re-arm the laser have proven safe, helping encourage reluctant governments such as Japan make the case for potential basing of ABLs in their soil.

Though the Air Force is planning for a single squadron of ABL planes, program officials explained that a detailed concept of operations is still in the works. Hyslop said the ABL's powerful beam could be turned against a wide variety of targets, including ones on the ground.

"ABL could be used in that mode," Hyslop said. "We don't have the sensing capabilities to find a target on the ground, but if we were given target coordinates we could obviously fire the laser at a point on the ground."

"The ranges are a lot shorter because you have to go through more atmosphere," he added.

With the completion of the fire control test last month, program officials are ready to install the missile-killing, high-energy laser aboard the 747 test aircraft - a process akin to "building a ship in a bottle" - with eventual ground tests of the laser next fall.

By the beginning of 2009, program officials say they'll flight test the ABL, firing the laser at "instrumented targets," possibly including drones, with a final missile-kill test in August 2009.

"The issue of putting a beam on the target was always a huge risk in the program," admitted Art Napolitano, ABL program manager with Lockheed Martin. "This building block approach has allowed us to demonstrate to everybody that technically this is a very viable weapon."

-- Christian

Heat Ray Too Scary for Iraq

ads.jpg

Many a DT reader will remember the so-called “Active Denial System” – a giant millimeter-wave electromagnetic antenna mounted on a Humvee that could be directed at large, unruly crowds to disperse them without firing a shot in anger.

The ray heats the human skin to such an uncomfortable level that he has to retreat. It is the hallmark of the Pentagon’s non-lethal weapons development plan...and the most controversial.

Well, it looks like commanders in Iraq have been pleading for the device, which is pretty far along in its development. But fearing the post-Taser backlash from some groups, the Pentagon denied the technology in favor of more lethal methods.

It would be a familiar scene in Iraq's next few years: Crowds gather, insurgents mingle with civilians. Troops open fire, and innocents die.

All the while, according to internal military correspondence obtained by The Associated Press, U.S. commanders were telling Washington that many civilian casualties could be avoided by using a new non-lethal weapon developed over the past decade.

Military leaders repeatedly and urgently requested - and were denied - the device, which uses energy beams instead of bullets and lets soldiers break up unruly crowds without firing a shot.

It's a ray gun that neither kills nor maims, but the Pentagon has refused to deploy it out of concern that the weapon itself might be seen as a torture device.

Perched on a Humvee or a flatbed truck, the Active Denial System gives people hit by the invisible beam the sense that their skin is on fire. They move out of the way quickly and without injury.

On April 30, 2003, two days after the first Fallujah incident, Gene McCall, then the top scientist at Air Force Space Command in Colorado, typed out a two-sentence e-mail to Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I am convinced that the tragedy at Fallujah would not have occurred if an Active Denial System had been there," McCall told Myers, according to the e-mail obtained by AP. The system should become "an immediate priority," McCall said.

Myers referred McCall's message to his staff, according to the e-mail chain.

It seems this is the sort of catch-22 the military is in when it comes to non-lethals. The devices conjure up grim images of pain and discomfort when you look at what they do, so groups object to them often on human rights grounds and ethics.

But what’s the alternative? Getting U.S. troops and other personnel killed, or using deadly force. So it looks like we’ve got a little ways to go before we can collectively wrap our minds around the issue and get these tools out to where they’re needed.

Watch a video of the ADS at work HERE. (Best line: "I think we had a crowd of two for about two seconds...")

And check out the entire story posted HERE on Military.com.

-- Christian

Sniping Security Cameras

Securitycamerasniper-c-h-a-.jpg

A C-H-A-O-S.com entry with the following disclaimer caught our eye (and not necessarily because of the grammar):

If you keep reading you'll be agreeing not to use the knowledge you may gain to any unlawfull (sic) behavior but for educational usage only.

The project tries to solve the conundrums surrounding "how to remotely disable security cameras nondestructively from quite a distance."

The author frames his motivation thusly:

"A lot of my inspiration comes from movies and for quite some time I have become more and more annoyed by Hollywoods sometimes rather silly solutions for an agent to shut down security cameras in order to remain undetected: E.g. blowing up the nearby power-plant or rigging up gadgets in sewers, where they can be detected by renovation workers and the sorts. If you blow something up or otherwise break it, your counterpart will immediately know it is sabotage and rule out a simple technical malfunction.

"Another thing that got me to write this article is the abundant usage of surveillance cameras everywhere which makes me want to burst the bubble about security of surveillance cameras by exposing their weakness."

And here's a summary of how he'd use a scope, a laser, and a cellphone to blind surveillance cameras:

"I had some serious thoughts about how to trigger the laser on and off. First, I thought I’d use an old wrist watch as a timer, but ended up discarding that idea . . . It just didn’t feel right and if the 'agent' had to shut down several security cameras, he would not only have to synchronize all the watches and set them up to turn the lasers on at the exact right time at once, but also turn them off after the job. My second idea was to remotely trigger the laser by radio or walkie-talkie. This would give the “agent” the possibility of e.g. pressing the call button on the walkie which would send out a beep to activate the lasers needed.

"The problem with this solution is that by using a standard walkie, everybody else could activate the lasers accidently if they where using the same channel (keep in mind that almost all baby-alarms use the standard walkie-talkie frequency). So unless I were to use pro walkie with encryption, I’d have to modify my plans a bit.
In the search for a transmitter/receiver solution that both had range and some sort of signal coding, it hit me: cellphones. But how well will this actually work?

"Well, after I build this, I had to try it out on an old security camera . . . Then I had some friends sending it a test-SMS and finally I had someone I knew across the Atlantic do it as well . . . No problem there, either. It worked like a charm."

So if you use this "knowledge" and it doesn't work? All part of his plan:

"In case you’ve missed the huge warning sign I’ve put up or choose to disregard it and are thinking about using the knowledge you’ve just gained to be messing with something you shouldn’t . . . Think about this: Maybe I left some minor, but crucial details out so assholes won’t be messing with something they shouldn’t be messing with . . . without getting their asses busted. So don’t!!!"

Damn right . . . uh, what?

(Gouge: CM)

-- Ward

Giant Blimp Deflated; Laser Jet Delayed

The big weapons -- the destroyers, the aircraft carriers, and the stealth jets -- all emerged pretty much unscathed in the Pentagon's latest budget. Some of the more bleeding-edge projects weren't so lucky. Especially at the Missile Defense Agency, which took about a half-billion dollar hit for fiscal year 2008.

HAA_alt.jpgTake the High-Altitude Airship, for instance. Just a year ago, the Pentagon handed Lockheed a $150 million contract to build the missile-spotting dirigible. No, it wouldn't be 25 times bigger than the Goodyear Blimp, as originally planned. Nor would it be powered by lasers. But it would still be built to "hover above the jet stream at an altitude of 65,000 feet for months at a time." That is, if major advances in solar panels, fuel cells, aerodynamic controls, and flexible materials could be overcome.

Lockheed won't get the chance any time soon, however. The High Altitude Airship "has been canceled due to funding constraints," according to the Missile Defense Agency. But get too distraught, blimp-lovers; the budget for the Aerostat Joint Program Office just jumped from $243 million to $481 mil.

The Airborne Laser -- the modified 747, meant to zap missiles as they take off -- still gets more than $500 million in the new budget. But its first live-fire test has been delayed, again. Originally scheduled for 2002, the blast has now been rescheduled for 2009, Inside Defense notes. The Laser Jet's alternative -- the "Kinetic Energy Interceptor," a non-explosive interceptor missile -- has been pared back, as well. There's no longer a "kill vehicle," or warhead, part to the program, Defense News observes. Instead, the KEI has been tweaked, to become a "common booster" for all sorts of missile interceptions.

There's much, much, much more in this budget to explore. Expect lots of posts in the week to come.

Pain Ray's Burning Questions

When controversial new military tools are being rolled out, perceptions often matter more than reality. Take the Active Denial System, the millimeter-wave pain ray developed by the Air Force. The weapon's effects are now pretty well understood by military researchers. But for the average person, it's been nearly impossible to sort through the range of claims and counter-claims surrounding the system. And these questions could come back to haunt the American government, if and when they ever deploy the system.

ads new.jpgI was powerfully reminded of this by the recent case of Raul Castells.

Raul Castells is a controversial social activist in Argentina. In 2004 he organised a march on McDonalds ; in March 2006 he opened a community kitchen providing free food for poor people in Puerto Madero, a swish redeveloped dock area. Located opposite the Hilton Hotel, it carried the slogan "We are fighting for an Argentina in which the dogs of the rich don't eat better than the children of the poor".

This behavior has angered some of his opponents in Argentina.

On December 12th, Castells was in a scuffle with the police which resulted in his being hospitalised with serious burns over 20% of his body.

“I was victim of a new Police weapon, a type of flame thrower,” said Castells (my translation). In fact, he was not sure if it was a flamethrower,a giant lighter or something else. Others claim that rubber bullets were fired at them after they went to help the burning man.

The police dispute the account given by Castells and his followers, saying that he was hit by a molotov cocktail thrown by one of his own supporters.

“The Buenosairean and Federal Police do not use flame throwers,” said a police spokesman, reasonably enough.

My first guess was that this was an accident, and that Castells had been hit with pepper spray which had been accidentally ignited. Such sprays use a flammable alcohol base; non-flammable alternatives have been rejected on grounds of safety, effectiveness and environmental damage. However, the police deny using pepper spray in the encounter.

This leaves two completely opposed versions of what happened. Who do you believe, the police or the protesters? While the days of the dirty war and critics of the government being 'disappeared' have long gone, the police are not universally trusted and officers have been convicted of extra-judicial executions of protesters as recently as 2002.

I’m not suggesting that the Argentine police are covertly field-testing an Active Denial system (though a portable version for police use was under development, and the Argentine police are quite innovative, being the first to adopt the electric cattle prod in the 1930’s ). But when the ADS is employed, people will turn up on CNN claiming to be victims, and showing off sunburn, leprosy, blisters and every other skin condition ever seen. Who will you believe? More importantly, who will the local population believe?

Dr Juergen Altmann suggests that prolonged exposure would likely produce high temperatures resulting in blistering over the entire exposed surface of the body. Clearly there is a risk, but re-radiation of heat outwards, and conduction of heat inwards will prevent the temperature from rising indefinitely. I have great respect for Dr Altmann’s technical knowledge in matters nonlethal, but the lack of this kind of injury during extensive testing leads me to suspect that the ADS is (relatively) safe.

Consider: if you step into warm sun from an air conditioned room, in a few seconds your skin temperature shoots up several degrees. This does not mean the solar heating will cause you to burst into flames if you remain for a few more minutes.

But who is really right? Until questions like this can be resolved, any deployment of Active Denial technology is going to be a political minefield.

-- David Hambling

50 Iraqis Dead from Laser Shortfall?

dazzled!.jpg"Civilian casualties in Iraq's volatile Anbar province would have been greatly reduced over the past 20 months if an inexpensive, hand-held laser system had been sent to the Marines operating there, according to a series of e-mail messages between troops in the field and acquisition officials in suburban Washington" obtained by the Tampa Tribune. "A military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said close to 50 innocent Iraqis were killed and nearly 140 were wounded in Anbar between March and December by Marines who did not have the dazzlers as an alternative to lethal force."

The decision to deny delivery of the Compact High Power Laser Dazzler has touched off an internal debate, the messages reveal, with highly charged phrases such as "unnecessary carnage" being used to describe the situation...

The dazzler is a nonlethal tool for steering unwelcome vehicles and people away from U.S. checkpoints and convoys. Without it, U.S. forces must open fire when Iraqis fail to heed warning signals and get too close...

Made by LE Systems, a small company in Hartford, Conn., the compact laser creates a wall of intense green light that stops or redirects oncoming traffic by temporarily impairing the driver's vision.

In June 2005, Marine Corps leaders in western Iraq filed an "urgent universal need" request for several hundred of LE Systems' dazzlers, which cost about $8,000 each. The request, which was repeated less than a year later, has gone unfulfilled.

The dazzler order appears to have been made by Marine Corps Major General Richard Zilmer, who's heading up the coalition effort in western Iraq. He is emerging as a extremely interesting figure. First, he tells Congress that the Marines "needs [the] capability" to deploy through space. Then, once he gets to Iraq, he sends an "urgent request" to the Pentagon, asking for new gear. At the top of his list: a "priority 1" plea for 183 renewable power stations, equipped with "solar panels and wind turbines." By reducing the need for [petroleum-based fuels] at our outlying bases, we can decrease the frequency of logistics convoys on the road, thereby reducing the danger to our Marines, soldiers, and sailors," the request stated. So far, however, the response to Zilmer's renewable-power request has been limited. A single station is being examined for research and development, sources tell Defense Tech. And the Army's Rapid Equipping Force is putting together four alt-power units: two trailer-sized, and two as big as "connex" cargo containers. It's a start, for sure. But it's a far cry from what Zilmer asked for.

(Big ups: Haninah)

Heat 'Em Up

Last week, the Defense Department showcased its "Active Denial System" or ADS At Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. Officially this system is still in "extended user evaluation" phase of an ACTD (advanced concept technology demonstration). They aren't being produced in quantities to ship to Iraq, although I'm sure the troops there wouldn't mind having a few in Baghdad. This system uses millimeter wave energy to cause an uncomfortable hot sensation, designed to encourage people to a hasty retreat from the scene.

ADS.jpg

The ADS has gone thorough treaty and legal reviews to ensure the system is compliant with applicable arms control treaties and agreements, according to the release. It has also undergone three military utility assessments, where it was evaluated in a variety of operational scenarios ranging from checkpoint support to facility, perimeter and harbor security.

Most of DoD’s current non-lethal weapons, such as bean bag rounds, use “kinetic” energy, Hymes said. With these weapons, the size and mass of the target and the distance at which the weapon is used can change the effect of the weapon, perhaps making it more dangerous, he explained.

“The ADS, on the other hand, is a ‘muzzle-safe’ weapon, which means it is safe and effective at 50 feet and 500 meters,” Hymes said. “The range, safety, universal effect, and tremendous repel capability make the ADS a very versatile non-lethal weapon with a great deal of military utility.”

Other people are more skeptical. German physicist Juergen Altmann points out that non-lethal weapons (or as some prefer, "less-lethal") are not without the capability for lethal results.

"It only stays at 50 degrees Celsius if the beam is switched off at the correct time, let's say after 3.5 seconds," he says. "If you beam on for a further three or five seconds, then you get 60 and 70 and 80 degrees, and you get second- and third-degree burns on the whole part of the body that is exposed, because the beam is at least 3 meters wide, and probably a little wider. You get essentially half of the body exposed that is pointing toward the antenna. And then there is the potential for life-threatening conditions. Medical literature says that if you have somebody who has second- or third-degree burns on more than 20 percent of his body, then he has to be put into intensive care, because it's life-threatening."

Concerns such as these may be why DOD is getting some early press on the system. While the Department says that the system has cleared treaty and legal issues, there will always be the perception that military personnel don't use non-lethal weapons without causing some casualties. DefenseTech has covered the evolution of this system for some time, and captured this Marine officer's comment in response to a question: what if the bad guys try to deflect the beam?

"If they try and deflect beams then we will kill them because we know what their intentions are. "

OKAY! good to know that the non-lethal weapons are of some use, in at least identifying the bad guys to shoot. For the final word, let's go to the Colbert Report. On Tuesday night, Stephen Colbert talked about the ADS (it had been featured on Faux News). He commented, "This is the perfect weapon for the war on terror. What's better than an invisible beam to fight an abstract concept?"

-- Jason Sigger, crossposted at Armchair Generalist

Pain Ray: Keep Waiting

On Monday night, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate told guys like David Hambling and me that we were welcome to come check out its microwave-ish pain ray -- provided we could make it to the middle of Georgia on 36 hours' notice. It wasn't exactly the most serious offer, for fellows in London and in L.A. And it's one of several reasons why I decided not to blog about the demonstration, when word about it hit the wires yesterday.

But New Scientist did pick up on one interesting tidbit: Theodore Barna, an assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for advanced systems and concepts told Reuters that "We expect the services to add it to their tool kit. And that could happen as early as 2010." (Here's a promo vid for the system.)

Three years from now, hunh? Well, we'll see. For years and years, there have been promises that the pain ray (or "Active Denial System" if you prefer) was just about to be rolled out to the field. Thirteen months ago, for example, the 18th Military Police Brigade requested ADS "to help 'suppress' insurgent attacks and quell prison uprisings." The head of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force said, after nearly 10,000 trial shots, the system was good to go. $30 million was allocated to outfitting three fighting vehicles with pain rays.

But the military still can't shake fears about ADS, as Hambling so ably noted last month. As Hambling put it, "the big problem is not with the technology, which seems to work fine. The problem is getting people to accept it. Everyone is still worried the millimeter-wave beam is going to give them cancer, melt their eyeballs or make them sterile."

Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne didn't help matters much when he suggested the pain ray should be zapping crowds here in the U.S. before it blasted any Iraqis.

Will Americans really be any more comfortable with that, a few years from now?

Next-Gen Ray Gun: Laser, Microwave Combo?

"Lasers and high-power microwave devices long have been eyed as competing directed-energy attack options. However, researchers are now combining the two to produce smaller, cheaper, more powerful, nonkinetic weapons," according to Aviation Week.

tomahawk-ship.jpg"An advanced concept, pioneered by BAE Systems' researchers, uses light to multiply the speed and power at which HPM [high-power microwave] pulses... Researchers predict leaps of 10-100 times in power output within two years," making it possible to generate the 100-gigawatt pulse needed "to disable a cruise missile at a useful range."

The development of HPM weapons has been hobbled for the last 30 years by seemingly intractable cost, size, beam-control and power-generation requirements. Tests of modified air-launched cruise missiles carrying devices to produce explosively generated spikes of energy were considered big disappointments in the early 1990s because of an inability to direct pulses and predict effects. New active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars can jam emitters or possibly cause damage to electronic components with focused beams. But power levels and ranges are limited by aperture size.

BAE Systems' photonically driven technology could open the way to much smaller and more powerful electronic jammers, nonkinetic beam weapons for cruise and anti-ship missile defenses, and stealth-detecting sensors.

"You could put a [sensor] system on a fighter-size aircraft that could generate enough power, with a 1-ft. resolution, to see stealthy objects at 100 mi." D'Amico says. "You can defeat stealth with enough power. If stealth takes the signature [of an aircraft or missile] down a factor of 10, you have to increase the [sensor's] power by a factor of 10." Most current fighter-size radars have less than a megawatt of peak power. Detecting stealth would require tens of gigawatts, which is now impossible in fighter-size packages...

"We have shown everything we claimed with a laboratory testbed," says Oved Zucker, director of photonics programs for BAE Systems' advanced concepts facility here. "We are in the process of demonstrating total power substantially above 10 gigawatts, and we have plans to test [the system] further in an airborne mode..."

There's no dearth of missions for HPM technology, including detecting and detonating improvised explosive devices, finding suicide bombers or hidden explosives, and attacking shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles...

"At one end, it can fry anything [electronic] that's out there," Zucker says. "The levels of EW extend from the sledgehammer to just making the [computer's] brain a little bit befuddled so it can't think for a moment. At a lower level, you can kill the detector of the other guy's radar as part of the suppression of enemy air defenses. You don't need much power because you're going after the most sensitive part. You're blinding the system."

The level below that is to momentarily stop electronics from functioning. A radar will try to defend itself by using a chain of circuits to "blink," and thereby shut out intruding signals. One method of exploitation is to do something during the blink. But if an intruding signal is fast enough, the radar can't react in time to keep out the invader...

BAE researchers envision HPM pulse weapons that are powerful enough to disable a tank, a missile, perhaps a helicopter or aircraft, but at the same time are small and light enough to function as part of a microwave radar sensor designed into the skin of an aircraft.

I'm sure this beam combo is harder than AvWeek is making it out to be. But still, it's an interesting concept.

Electric Lasers Shoot Mortars, Gain Strength

Real-life laser weapons continue to inch closer to reality. Two recent examples: Raytheon says its "prototype solid-state Laser Area Defense System (LADS) successfully detonated 60-millimeter mortars." And Northrop Grumman is opening up a new "directed energy production facility" for building high energy, solid-state lasers.

laser_lab.jpgRaytheon's announcement is interesting, because solid-state, electric lasers haven't yet hit the 100 kilowatt threshold which many people consider to be the minimum strength for weapons-grade lasers. (They're not too far off, though.) But Raytheon says they zapped these mortars using "an a proven, existing, off-the-shelf solid-state laser, coupled with commercially available optics technology."

So how did the company pull it off? I got a non-answer from a company flack, something about "view[ing] the problem from the user point of view."

Now, this was a very limited test. These mortars were small -- just 60 mm. The company wouldn't say how long they were zapped (even a weak laser can bore holes in metal, given enough time). And the mortars were on the ground, around 550 yards away, not flying through the air. But this LADS is built on the back on Raytheon's 4,500-round-per-minute Phalanx gun, which is already knocking down mortars in Iraq. So presumably, the targeting and tracking piece is won't be that hard to manage. In-air tests of the laser are planned for later this year.

Meanwhile, Northrop has opened up a new facility, south of Los Angeles, to build what the company hopes is the world's first 100 kilowatt, solid-state laser. It'll start by putting together the series of 32 garnet crystal "modules" that form the heart of the system. Shine light-emitting diodes into 'em, and they start the laser chain-reaction, shooting out focused light. Combine all those beams into one, and you've got yourself a battlefield-strength ray. The array is similar to what Northrop used in its 25 kw demonstrator. But the gum-stick-sized crystals have been shrunk by about 50% -- part of the company's effort to make the laser small and rugged enough for war zone use.

50 people should be hired over the next year in the new facility. Company officials say they're still on track on demonstrate their 100 kw laser by the end of next year. If everything works according to plan, there should be enough room in the new building to simultaneously build and test three weapons-grade lasers at once.

Good Luck Stopping Missiles Early

"I have to say that it is the ugliest aircraft I have ever seen."

That's what Missile Defense Agency director Lieutenant General Trey Obering said when he laid eyes on the Airborne Laser at a rollout ceremony in October.

abl_side_view.jpgI'm not one of those guys that swoons in front of aircraft. But I were, I guess I'd agree, with the modified 747's turrets and antennae and protrusions. But the Airborne Laser isn't mean to win beauty contests. It's being to blast ballistic missiles -- using a chemically-powered, megawatt-class laser -- as they're first climbing into the sky. That's when missiles are slowest and most vulnerable.

This is called boost-phase intercept. Mid-course intercept is up to the Navy's SM-3 missile and the Ground-Based Interceptors based in California and Alaska. Terminal interception -- right before the suckers hit -- is left to Army Patriot missiles, Navy SM-2s and the Army's forthcoming Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense missile, or THAAD. It takes defenses in all three phases to make a fully-functioning missile shield.

The boost-phase intercept is the hardest. There's just a short window before a missile accelerates, noses over, deploys decoys and gets a lot harder to kill. Some folks in the military think the job is so difficult, we shouldn't even bother, going with "pre-boost phase" defense instead -- blowing up the missiles before they ever get off the launching pad, with lightning-quick attacks. But with three Airborne Laser jets, you could maintain a 24-hour orbit near a launch area and zap the missiles mere seconds after launch. Theoretically.

Problem is, the 747's chemical laser and delicate sensors don't quite work yet, despite about a zillion tests, and planning going back the Reagan Administration. The first was supposed to enter service in 2002, then 2005. Now, the target date has been pushed back at least until 2009, and further production is on hold. Obering says he hasn't lost hope -- yet. "Airborne Laser, if it pans out, is very capable," he said at the Surface Navy Symposium, held yesterday in Crystal City near Washington, D.C. "[It is] our primary boost-phase program -- but it's a high-risk program. If it doesn't pan out, we [still] need a boost-phase capability."

So Obering has a back-up... sorta. It's called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor, a fancy name for a "hit-to-kill" (no explosion) long-range missile. Obering figures it will launch from ground silos or from the Navy's projected CG(X) missile cruiser. The general prefers the latter. "I'm a big believer in a more mobile capability. An increased emphasis on seabasing ... is important."

But the Kinetic Energy Interceptor exists mostly on paper, and couldn't be operational before 2014. So too the CG(X), which is still in the study phase. It's supposed to be based on the $2-billion DDG-1000, itself clinging to life after a series of cutbacks. A theoretical missile on a theoretical cruiser is hardly a confidence-inspiring alternative to the finicky flying chemical bomb that is the Airborne Laser.

But nobody's got a better idea.

UPDATE 12:10 PM: "Besides the [Airborne Laser's] technical difficulties, of which there are many, I don't think that MDA [the Missile Defense Agency] has even begun to address how one could realistically try to use ABL in an operational setting," adds missile defense analyst Victoria Samson.

One justification for the ABL is that it's better than other types of interceptors because it can continually shoot at a target until the threat is gone - unlike others, which would have to shoot-look-shoot. However, that doesn't take into consideration the logistics of how one would continually shoot the ABL. That's a heavy requirement of your chemicals. How much do you need for one shot? For two? For five minutes' worth? And how would the aircraft fly with that type of dangerous load on-board?

Drunks, Butts Test Pain Ray; Paris Hilton Next?

I have a story in Wired News today about the Air Force’s Active Denial System (or ‘pain beam’) and why it is still not in service -- despite all those years of development, and all those calls for it in Iraq. The big problem is not with the technology, which seems to work fine. The problem is getting people to accept it. Everyone is still worried the millimeter-wave beam is going to give them cancer, melt their eyeballs or make them sterile.

ADStest.jpgThe Air Force has done a lot of safety testing on the Active Denial System. They have done every sort of test you could think of – and many you would never imagine. Thanks to Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project, I received a hefty stash of all 14 sets of protocols for ADS testing involving humans which he acquired using the FoIA. There are some amazing ones in there.

F-WR-2002-0024-H - Effects of Ethanol on Millimeter-Wave-Induced Pain translates roughly into “let’s see if a guy can stand the pain if we give him enough vodkas.” FWR-2002-0023 Facial sensitivity and eye aversion response says that earlier trials included testing the pain beam on subjects buttocks; and FWR-2004-0029-H: Effects of Active Denial System Exposures on the Performance of Military Working Dog Teams involved putting a trained attack dog and its handler in front of the beam and seeing what happened when the animal was exposed to sudden, intense pain. Down, boy, down...

The beam has been tested thousands of times, and the bottom line is the same – apart from very occasional blisters (seven in ten thousand exposures), all the ADS does is hurt a lot. Earlier concerns about zippers and spectacles seem to have been settled. But the Pentagon are hugely defensive about it. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but since those FoIA documents went out the Joint Non-lethal Weapons Program updated their web site’s section on the ADS. The best bit is the new video here. If you ignore the Pentagon PR blather and move to a point 1 minute 19 seconds in you can see the actual effects of the beam, but only for 8 seconds, and again at 1 min 40 for 6 seconds.

And this is the problem. Tests conducted in secrecy without independent observers are not going to convince people: it amounts to "It’s safe because we say it is. Trust us." The ADS must not simply be safe and effective, it must be seen to be safe and effective, preferably by as many people as possible. And that means television.

Which is where my own modest proposal comes in. It’s inspired by F-BR-2006-0018-H: Effects of Exposure to 400-W, 95-GHz Millimeter Wave Energy on Non-Stationary Humans:

Adult volunteers…will be asked to traverse a course as quickly as possible. At the end of this course they must then unlock a door (a subtask requiring some degree of fine motor skills) in order to exit the course (complete the task). During commission of this task, subjects will be targeted by the small-beam diameter, 400-W, 95-GHz device.

In other words, you try to get through the obstacle course (described as ‘maze-like”) while being zapped one or more pain beams. It’s a valid test of the beam’s ability to prevent people from getting through a perimeter fence or similar, but it's also got a neat competitive element. It's already using cameras, and it has a sort of gameshow format, with post-zapping interviews:

Subject performance during all of the trials will be videotaped. After each trial, subjects will be asked for a self-report of "hits" and the perceived effectiveness of those hits utilizing a pain scale.

Reality television which involves suffering has been huge recently. We’ve seen a rash of programs like Big Brother (which did more damage to George Galloway's reputationthan the Senate Committee) and Survivor in which contestants endure appalling experiences for big prizes. We used to laugh at the Japanese humiliation-show Endurance, but the UK's biggest hit du jour is I'm A Celebrity Get me Out of Here, in which D-list celebs try to boost their flagging ratings by eating caterpillars and even more disgusting delicacies .

So why not turn the ADS testing into a live show? That way millions of people could see for themselves exactly what the pain beam does. Familiarity would dispel all the myths about it, and thorough medical examinations (and perhaps the odd lawsuit) would settle any questions its safety once and for all. Even better, because it's a matter of the nation's defence, we can rope in anyone we want from the worlds of sport, entertainment and politics to ensure we get the ratings:

Dear Minor But Irritating Celebrity,

You have been selected by national poll to participate in a project vital to National Security. You are therefore required to report at the address attached on the stated date. Filming starts at 20:00 Saturday, and your attendance is mandatory and will be enforced. It'll hurt, but it's in a good cause.

You could vote for people to be included because you want to see how tough they really are, because they absolutely deserve it -- or just because it would be fun to see them get zapped. Unlike other non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets and tear gas, ADS is equally safe on a 250 lb althete or a 110 lb heiress. Pacemakers, piercings, prosthetic joints, pregnancy or silicone implants are no obstacle to competing -- the whole point of the ADS is that everybody is fair game. And it won't leave any bruises, marks or damage a hair.

Whichever celebrity gets furthest in the trial is the winner that week, and gets to go on all the chat shows and talk about their experiences and have their picture in all the magazines. (Heat would be sort of appropriate). Picking the planet's most egotistical and driven individuals should ensure that the beam really does work against highly motivated opponents, which previous tests have not necessarily proven.

As for a title - how about calling it "No Pain No Gain"?

I'll settle for 2%, Mr Murdoch...

-- David Hambling

Lasers Blowing Up

There's a bit of a magic number, when it comes to lasers. A threshold at which beams of coherent light stop being tools for welding or analysis... and start becoming weapons. That level is generally considered to be around 100 kilowatts.

sshcl_hole.JPGFor years, solid state, electric lasers could only operate at a tiny fraction of that 100 kw mark. But the beams are getting stronger. Take Bob Yamamoto's Solid State Heat Capacity Laser, at Lawrence Livermore National Lab. In March, 2005, it hit 45 kw, a new record -- and more than triple what it could do just three years before.

Now, in a new pair of papers provided to Defense Tech, Yamamoto reveals that his laser has hit 67 kw of average power during short bursts -- a 50% jump in a little more than a year. In other words, a battlefield-strength laser is just about in reach. The Livermore crew has even started designing a "gatling-gun"-style prototype, that uses clear, garnet slabs instead of bullets for ammunition.

(There are still a bunch of other hurdles to jump to get to a laser weapon -- like generating enough electricity to make it work, and cooling the thing down. But beam strength is one of the tallest obstacles.)

Yamamoto's team isn't the only one trying to put together a military-ready machine. Textron Systems and Northrop Grumman beat the Livermore crew out for $90 million worth of Defense Department grant money to build a 100 kilowatt laser by 2009. And these systems won't just be stronger than today's lasers. They'll be more compact, too -- maybe even ready for a prototype weapon.

Airport Defense: Lasers, Microwaves

Cheap, low-tech, easy-to-use, and utterly lethal, shoulder-fired missiles have become a terrorist weapon of choice, killing more than 640 people in 35 attacks on civilian jets. And so far, countermeasures have proven too finicky and too expensive to widely deploy. So the Department of Homeland Security is trying out instead a pair of new defenses, seemingly straight of science fiction: laser guns and microwave blasters.

skyguard_draw.jpgThe Department will spend $4.1 million to test out Raytheon's "Vigilant Eagle" system, which relies a series of microwave pulses to throw off a missile's guidance package. A series of passive infrared trackers, installed around an airport, would look out for missile exhaust. When these sensors detect a launch, data about the missile's trajectory is sent to a control center, which in turn tells a billboard-size microwave array where to blast.

How exactly this is done without disrupting a plane's avionics system has never been fully explained to me. Which may be why DHS is also sinking nearly $2 million into a study of Northrop Grumman's laser-based, "SkyGuard" defense, as well.

The system is a modification of the company's Tactical High Energy Laser, which successfully blasted dozens of Katyusha rockets and mortars out of the air during military testing. The laser, powered by vats of toxic chemicals, was considered too cumbersome for battlefield use. A permanent set-up an airport might be a different story, however.

DHS has spent nearly four years and $239 million to adapt the military's series of countermeasures to civilian jets. But most commercial carriers have been unwilling to pay for the systems, which could cost $50 billion over ten years to install and maintain. So far, Fedex is the only big flier to invest heavily in the defenses, agreeing to outfit 11 of its planes with the countermeasures.

Ground-based systems -- even ones based on ray guns -- might prove more palatable to the airline industry. Sure, the technology is less proven than the jet-based defenses. But eventually, the microwave and laser blasters could prove "more reliable," Daniel Goure, vice president of the Lexington Institute, tells Bloomberg News. "It is easier to be on the ground where you can have an infinite power supply. Aircraft are only vulnerable below a certain altitude, when they are taking off and landing. For most airports you can place them on towers where you can cover landing and takeoff routes."

Raytheon and Northrop have 18 months to prove their futuristic systems are ready to handle the job.

UPDATE 4:18 PM: In case you're wondering -- no, this is not the 300-oven death ray.

(Big ups: CP)

Chinese Laser vs. U.S. Sats?

"China has fired high-power lasers at U.S. spy satellites flying over its territory in... a test of Chinese ability to blind the spacecraft," Defense News is reporting. And, at least in theory, those lasers might be able temporarily take offline America's most powerful orbiting spies, like the giant electro-optical Keyhole spacecraft or radar-based satellites like the Lacrosse.

starfire-optical-range-laser3.jpgNow, the article is a little short on details. "It remains unclear how many times the ground-based laser was tested against U.S. spacecraft or whether it was successful," the story says.

And there's a touch of hyperbole in the piece. According to the article, a recent Pentagon report "acknowledge[d] China has the ability to blind U.S. satellites, thanks to a powerful ground-based laser." That's not exactly right. What the report actually says isn't quite so definitive:

Evidence exists that China is improving its situational awareness in space, which will give it the ability to track and identify most satellites. Such capability will allow for the deconfliction of Chinese satellites, and would also be required for offensive actions. At least one of the satellite attack systems appears to be a groundbased laser designed to damage or blind imaging satellites.

Nevertheless, citing unnamed "top officials," the trade journal asserts that "China not only has the [anti-satellite] capability, but has exercised it. It is not clear when China first used lasers to attack American satellites. Sources would only say that there have been several tests over the past several years."

Within the U.S. military, there's a contingent that's been worried for years about China arming up like this. The other day, I was talking to an Air Force colonel, about the Pentagon's plans for "prompt global strike" -- the ability to launch, in a matter of hours, a bolt-from-the-blue attack against an enemy thousands and thousands of miles away. Some in the armed forces talk about the strikes as a way to take out an Iranian nuclear facility, a terrorist chieftain, or a North Korean missile on the launchpad. But this colonel had a different target in mind for the instant attack: a Chinese "anti-satellite, ground-based laser wreak[ing] havoc with our constellation."

If China really is pursuing such a weapon, it wouldn't be the only country looking at lasers to interfere with enemy eyes above the sky. In a 1997 test, the U.S. fired a chemical laser at a satellite orbiting 420 kilometers above the Earth. The "laser apparently had technical difficulties," according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "but the results of the test were startling."

A lower-power (30-watt) laser intended for alignment of the system and tracking of the satellite was the primary laser source used during the test, and it appeared that this lower-power laser was sufficiently powerful itself to blind the satellite temporarily, although it could not destroy the sensor.

These days, the Air Force's Starfire Optical Range is shooting lasers in the sky, trying to figure out how best to correct for atmospheric interference. Astronomers looking into the heavens will be the most immediate beneficiaries. But Starfire could help out anti-satellite weaponeers, too. These days, ground-based lasers aren't powerful enough -- or good enough at traveling through the air -- to permanently take out a satellite; the best the beams might be able to do is blind the thing, temporarily. That could change, if Starfire (or its Chinese equivalent) does its job right.

UPDATE 10:12 AM: Color Theresea Hitchens, the Center for Defense Information's resident spacewar guru, "not convinced – nor impressed."

The folks quoted in this story are neither space nor China experts -- and those folks are easy to find. And there is the odd timing: just as Griffin goes to China, over the earlier objections of Rummy and the P-gon. Statements like "China's burgeoning antisatellite capabilities..." -- who SAYS? Even the P-gon hasn't gone that far in its reports on Chinese Military Power.

All that said, I would NOT be surprised if the Chinese were testing a Ground-Based Laser. So are we, at Starfire Optical Range. If they lased U.S. satellites though, how do we know they were trying to blind them rather than TRACK them -- since we say Starfire is using lasers only to track sats? China doesn't have all that great tracking ability, and it needs it, not just to track our stuff but their own. There isn't any real way to tell, I don't think, what the INTENT behind such lasing would be.

NOT that it is a good thing -- lasing other people's sats without their consent, or at least specific statements of your intent to do only tracking, in peacetime ought to be off the playing field, hence the need for a code of conduct of some sort in space operations.

Finally, with regard to laser blinding -- it is not as easy as it sounds to "blind" an optical satellite with a laser. I'm no physicist, but as I understand it, imaging satellites usually work in several wavelengths, meaning first of all you'd have to have lasers in all the colors that match those wavelengths to blind the sat, not just one single wavelength laser beam. Secondly, because of the way imaging sats work, taking pictures of strips of the Earth using strips of pixels, you'd have to figure out how to blind all the pixels -- which apparently is so hard as to be well nigh impossible. And I note that as far as I know, we haven't gotten that far with Starfire, so what makes us so sure the Chinese are ahead of us there?

If you ask me, the story raises more questions than answers.

Lasers Speak to Subs

Communicating with subs underwater is beyond tough. Sound moves through seawater in very strange ways, with water temperature, salinity, and density speeding up and slowing things down -- garbling conversations in the process. Electromagnetic transmissions (like radio) are no better -- the sea has some funky electrical conductivity. During the Cold War, sub authority Joe Buff notes, the Navy managed to get super-simple, one-way messages to its subs, with a pair of giant (28-mile!) extremely low frequency transmitters, based in the Midwest. But those transmitters were shut down, a few years back.

DPPS_Beam_Fan.JPGThe Navy's new idea is to get specially-tuned lasers to handle the job, instead. The service has handed out a pair of small business innovation research contracts to Bothell, WA's Aculight Corporation and Bedford, MA-based Q-Peak to build blue-green, quick-burst lasers for transmitting messages across the deep. Acluight, for example, wants to use a combination of semiconductor and fiber lasers to produce a low power beam (around 10 watts) at about 532nm spectrum range. The idea is to get pulses as quick as half a nanosecond, repeating as much as 10 million times per second.

Blue-green lasers have been discussed for a while as potential sub-talkers, with good reason. Seawater has a lot of organic junk floating around inside, which makes it "turbid" -- "nearly opaque to light over much of any distance," Buff explains.

Blue-green light's frequency is best at penetrating through this turbidity, given the mix of sizes in microns of the particles and other stuff that prevents seawater from being transparent. (Of course, some areas such as the Bahamas are famous for the clarity of their water, but this is very much the exception, not the rule, globally speaking.) This same turbidity is essential to giving submarines their invisibility while submerged, so it's a double edged sword.

Pain Ray, R.I.P.?

For years, the Air Force Research Lab, along with the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate, has been working on a microwave-like pain ray, to keep potential rioters at bay. And for years, we've been hearing that this so-called "Active Denial System" -- which penetrates 1/64th of inch beneath the skin, activating pain receptors, and sparking serious burning feelings -- was just about ready to ship to Iraq.

ads_ir.JPGBut that prospect -- already growing more remote, because of concerns about speed and reliable tests -- just got downright distant. Because now, the Secretary of the Air Force wants to try out systems like the pain ray "on American citizens in crowd-control situations before they are used on the battlefield," the AP reports. And we all know: zapping home-growing protesters is not going to happen any time in the near future.

Domestic use would make it easier to avoid questions in the international community over any possible safety concerns, said Secretary Michael Wynne.

"If we're not willing to use it here against our fellow citizens, then we should not be willing to use it in a wartime situation," said Wynne. "(Because) if I hit somebody with a nonlethal weapon and they claim that it injured them in a way that was not intended, I think that I would be vilified in the world press."

The Air Force has funded research into nonlethal weapons, but he said the service isn't likely to spend more money on development until injury issues are reviewed by medical experts and resolved.

Last year, as New Scientist noted, Active Denial System testers "banned glasses and contact lenses to prevent possible eye damage to the subjects, and in the second and third tests removed any metallic objects such as coins and keys to stop hot spots being created on the skin." But the real concern, at least in the military, was that the thing was too slow for use, not too dangerous. (After all, one of the primarily corwd control devices today is the decidedly-lethal M-16.) Several units in Iraq from requested the pain ray, ASAP. Pentagon poobahs majorly boosted the long-term budget for Active Denial and other "less-lethal" weapons. After 9300 test shots, for many, the only question was whether to use the system at sea, on land, or in the air.

So what happens to Active Denial now? My guess is that we're on our way to an old-fashioned, intra-service smackdown. Maybe the big wigs will even zap each other, in the process.

(Big ups: RC)

Lasers: Israel's Rocket Defense?

It was, perhaps, the most successful laser gun in the history of energy weapons. Now, it could just prove to be the key to Israel's defense. Maybe.

ACF9C35.jpgIn the early part of this decade, the Israeli and American militaries worked with Northrop Grumman to build the Tactical High Energy Laser, or THEL. During tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the chemical-powered energy weapon blasted out of the sky 28 Katyusha rockets -- just like the ones now assaulting Israel. Another 18 artillery shells and mortars were successfully zapped, as well. No other laser has ever come close to building up that kind of track record. (Here's a video of some of the shoot-downs.)

"All my career, I've been interested in fielding lasers," Jeff Sollee, a veteran Northrop laser scientist, told Defense Tech earlier this year. "THEL was as close as they come."

But generating the THEL's megawatts of laser power required hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals — ethylene, nitrogen trifluoride. The weapons grew bulky; one proposed small-scale version was supposed to be kept in a mere eight cargo containers, each 40 feet long. A mobile THEL, on just a couple of trucks, proved to be too complex, and too expensive to contemplate. Worse, after a few shots, the lasers would have to be resupplied with a fresh batch of reactants. The logistics of hauling those toxins either through the air or across a battlefield made generals shiver. Israel eventually dropped out of the program. Then America did, too, turning its focus instead to solid-state, electric lasers.

Now, Northrop is pushing an upgraded THEL, under the name SkyGuard. The system is being pushed for airport defense, to keep jetliners safe from shoulder-fired missiles (kind of like this microwave-based missile-zapper from Raytheon I reported on last year).

But "Northrop executives have pitched [the] laser system in meetings with Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Amir Peretz," the Wall Street Journal reports. "Based on Israel's expression of interest in the laser technology, he said, Northrop has begun the process of applying for an export license."

SkyGuard is about a quarter the size of the original THEL, although not much smaller than the eight-container proposal. Northrop claims that the system's exhaust is mostly helium and steam, and requires a "keep out zone" of only 30 meters, Aerospace Daily notes. The price: maybe $200 million, plus $1,000 per shot.

Raytheon is also pitching Israel on air defense, too -- but not the microwave system. A few years back, the company began modifying its Phalanx 4,500 round-per-minute gun, originally designed for ship defense, to knock down mortars.

The WSJ says that "six batteries currently are deployed in Iraq." And from the reports I've heard, the Phalanxes are performing rather well, with several confirmed kills. Presumably, the systems could be shipped to Israel in fairly short order. The laser-based Skyguard is still very much on the drawing board, however. So Israel would still have to wait quite a while for its speed-of-light defense.

(Big ups: BB)

UPDATE 7/18/06 11:13 AM: According to a company spokesperson, Northrop thinks it can squeeze Skyguard "into the equivalent of three standard, 20-foot ISO containers" -- much less than the eight contemplated before.

Fringe Science? I'll Take Vegas!

Last year, I got a strange call. That’s not surprising, because I get lots of strange calls. But this one was strange because the person on the other end of the phone was asking me for investment advice, and since I can’t quite balance my checkbook, I’m a strange person to be offering financial tips to anyone.

las-vegas 3.jpg“Whaddya think of this firm Ionatron?” the man asked, introducing himself as vice president of a boutique investment firm in California. He didn’t know much about defense or the Pentagon, but he was really interested in investing in this weapons firm, which he thought had big potential.

For those who don’t know about Tucson-based Ionatron, I first advise reading up on Tesla coils. Once you understand what a Tesla coil is, you’ll be about halfway toward understanding Iontraon, a company that claims to have pioneered a weapon that will shoot lightning bolts (Noah has written some excellent posts on Ionatron here and, most recently, here). When newspapers talk about Ionatron, they usually start by talking about Buck Rogers guns or Star Trek phasers. I prefer to begin by talking about Tesla coils, which shoot sparks a few feet. Legions of would-be inventors, up to an including those in Ionatron, have dreamt of extending those sparks out to tens of meters, or even miles.

I took an hour out of my day to explain to this guy all the reasons why Ionatron, even if its technology pans out, was not likely to be equipping the Army with handheld lightning guns anytime soon. There were some basic practicalities. For example, ionizing the air to make the lightning bolt go at any great distance is really hard. The power sources needed to break down the air and shoot the lightning are pretty bulky. And finally, electricity, as we all learn in grade school, likes to travel in the most efficient manner possible. That means if lightning were ever shot out of a handheld device, you’d need a way to ensure it doesn’t hit the guy holding it, or the unlucky buddy next to him. Good luck.

Okay, those are the scientific barriers, but then there are the bureaucratic considerations. The Pentagon doesn’t one day throw down all its tried and true guns in favor of some fancy static electricity. There’s an entire acquisition process that takes years, and sometimes decades, to field a weapon. So, even if you’ve really perfected the lightning gun, it’ll be quite some time before the first soldier ever lays his hands on it. Finally, you have to ask, are lightning bolts really any better than good old-fashioned bullets? Not always, is likely the answer.

I said all this, but I could tell the guy wasn’t listening, because I wasn’t telling him what he wanted to hear. “Well,” he finally said, “if there’s even one in a hundred shot that Ionatron is really on to something, then it’s worth my relatively small investment.”

Then I realized the problem: I was on the phone with a true believer. There was nothing I could say that this guy would listen to—his logic was that of the hardened gambler. It’s also the same argument that explains the nearly obsessive support among some in the Pentagon for the hafnium bomb, a notional weapon based on an experiment that violated the laws of physics. As I write in my new book, Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld, the true believers grasp on to the most perverse logic: Any chance that a weapon might work warrants investment if the payoff is high enough. In the case of the hafnium bomb, the Pentagon figured that tens of millions of dollars was worth the investment if the result was a weapon that could revolutionize warfare.

But the problem in this argument, like with most fringe science, is that if you follow it to its logical conclusion, you’ll only invest in failures. It’s like arguing that rather than putting money in your 401K, you should invest in slot machines, because the investment is low and the payoff is high. Almost all fringe science is high-risk, high payoff, so by the logic of the true believers, you should invest in all fringe science.

People often ask me: what’s your favorite example of fringe science? I usually tell them, “It’s the Tesla lightning gun.” Not because it’s fringe per se (Tesla coils exist and work), but because every few years, someone modifies a Tesla coil, declares it the next great weapon, and boom, the Pentagon gives them some money. So, will Ionatron buck the trend (or Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems) and invent a really cool weapon? Heck if I know, but the chance that the Pentagon will anytime this decade buy a lightning weapon in mass quantities is so remote as to be almost nil. So, why not just go to Vegas, put your money in the slots, and have some fun.

And, heck, at least in Vegas, the drinks are free.

-- Sharon Weinberger

Pain Ray Too Slow for Iraq?

For quite a while, now, we've heard promises that a microwave-like pain ray, the Active Denial System, was on its way to Iraq. But, so far, no Iraqis have been zapped. What gives?

ADS-System.jpgAccording to Bloomberg News, "Raytheon's new weapon, which is intended to repel hostile forces by creating a sensation of intense heat on skin, doesn't act quickly enough to be effective, said U.S. Marine Corps Col. Wade Hall, who directs the program that would test the device."

The device is scheduled to be installed on three Stryker transports headed to Iraq next year as part of a test of a range of new technologies [including sonic blasters and laser dazzlers]. If the problem isn't fixed, the Pentagon will have to decide in the next few months whether to include it...

"The primary quality I'm concerned with is timeliness," Hall said. "We need to get these capabilities to the war fighter as quickly and safely as possible. I set some pretty hard timelines. I don't let things drag out for many months."

(Big ups: Milblogs)

Bomb-Zapper, Back to Drawing Board

Now we know why ray gun maker Ionatron hasn't been talking up their bomb-frying, electricity-spewing Joint IED Neutralizer, lately. It turns out the Defense Department has turned down the machines. Ionatron's going back to the drawing board.

JIN.jpgThe company cranked out a dozen of the golf cart-esque JINs last year. Ionatron execs said the machines, which use laser pulses and electrical bursts to zap bombs, would be sent out to Iraq, pronto. But the JINs never made it.

"The U.S. government customer concluded that the JIN counter-IED technology performed well and offers great promise, but determined that the current vehicle platform should be changed," the company said in a statement, picked up by the Arizona Daily Star.

Ionatron CEO Thomas Dearmin, in a conference call with financial analysts, expressed some disappointment that the company did not receive a production contract after months of testing of the JIN system.

"We expected to be in production at this point in time," Dearmin told analysts. "All I can say is, it's more complicated than you or I thought it could be."

Dearmin said the vehicles used as platforms for the JIN test units were by necessity off-the-shelf because of the time constraints involved. Ionatron said it produced the 12 test JIN units in nine months.

Ionatron will work to adapt the system to other vehicles, possibly including existing military vehicles, he said.

"There needs to be parts and spares available, and it's a big system," Dearmin said. "We've engineered to put these on other platforms — I think there are other platforms out there that the military is comfortable with."

Ray Gunners Make Deals

Things are looking up for real-life ray gun firm Ionatron, Gene Inger and Defense Industry Daily both say.

plasma_tank_cropped.jpgThe Tuscon company has linked up with DRS Technologies, which, among other things, is handling some of the big power and battle management systems on the Army's next generation of combat vehicles. Gene sees this as a "major door opener" to get Ionatron's man-made lightning bolts aboard the Army's tanks and fighting vehicles of the future.

But as is often the case with Ionatron, there's something not quite right here. The company has been attracting attention recently for its "Joint IED Neutralizer," a golf cart-type contraption which uses lasers and electrical bursts to blow up improvised bombs. Several JINs have been ordered up for Iraq.

But the DRS/Ionatron announcement makes no mention of this. Instead, it talks about using Ionatron's technology as a "directed-energy weapon" -- one that could be used in "defense applications relating to shipping ports and dockside protection." Similarly, the anti-bomb mission got a short shrift during a recent segment on Al Haig's infomercial program. All the talk by Ionatron execs and their cohorts was about how they could "taser people at a distance" and "disable terrorists" -- oh, and how Congress needed to cook up "legislation that authorizes" more funds for Ionatron-esque technologies.

UPDATE 12:15 PM: Gene writes in to remind us that "the JIN product (which may come along) is not [Ionatron's] core technology; as [CEO] Tom Dearmin has frequently stated... He has said JIN was a spin-off in no way contemplated by the company, but done at the behest of the" Pentagon.

Death Ray -- or Accounting Shift?

The headline is pretty spooky: "Administration Conducting Research Into Laser Weapon." And the meat of the story, on the Starfire Optical Range's plan to start lighting up satellites, can probably best be described as:

AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!! DEATH RAY!!!!! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!!!!

Check it out:

The Bush administration is seeking to develop a powerful ground-based laser weapon that would use beams of concentrated light to destroy enemy satellites in orbit.

Domes_big.jpgThe largely secret project, parts of which have been made public through Air Force budget documents submitted to Congress in February, is part of a wide-ranging effort to develop space weapons, both defensive and offensive…

The laser research… would take advantage of an optical technique that uses sensors, computers and flexible mirrors to counteract the atmospheric turbulence that seems to make stars twinkle.

The weapon would essentially reverse that process, shooting focused beams of light upward with great clarity and force.

Which is all true – to a point. Gimme a sec to explain.

The Starfire range relies on some of the only useful technology to emerge from the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or Star Wars. As Ann Finkbeiner tells the story, in the early 1980s, Air Force scientists looked into the question of correcting for atmospheric turbulence to image Soviet spy satellites. They had the idea that to shine a laser against a layer of sodium in the mesosphere (essentially the last layer of the earth's atmosphere) in order to measure the distortion from the ground up.

Measuring the atmospheric distortion allows a scientist to deform her telescope producing a clear picture. It's called adaptive optics. Think of it as looking at yourself in a funhouse mirror with glasses that are just as screwy, but precisely so in order to offset the effect of the mirror. (The pretty picture accompanying the NYT story does a good job of explaining.)

The Starfire Optical Range uses adaptive optics, mostly, to take pretty pictures of stars and the like (click here for a little astro-porn from SOR). But the same skill-set is also damn handy if you want to fire a laser through the atmosphere to fry a satellite or ballistic missile.

Hence, our little problem here.

So, am I little bothered that the Air Force is funding "atmospheric compensation/beam control experiments for application including antisatellite weapons"? Yup. "Precision aimpoint stabilization through turbulence"? That can't be good. Ditto placing the whole thing under "Advanced Weapons Technology." Unless UBL is hanging out on a space station, I can think of better ways to use the cash.

On the other hand, the NYT's science scribe, Bill Broad, isn't being fair when he calls the research a "largely secret project", accuses the Bush Administration of "seeking to develop a powerful ground-based laser weapon that would use beams of concentrated light to destroy enemy satellites in orbit" or relegates the useful applications of adaptive optics to a couple of paragraphs near the end of the story.

This is important technology research, largely conducted in the open. As Broad notes, "previously, the laser work resided in a budget category that paid for a wide variety of space efforts." What's happened here, mostly, is an accounting shift. Adaptive optics can be used for good or ill, depending on our collective wisdom as a people. There is no policy fix for stupid.

Broad is being particularly unfair to both the Air Force and critics of this particular experiment, like me, by giving the last word to an activist group warning that, if the experiment is conducted, "the barrier to weapons in space will have been destroyed."

I'd rather the Air Force not do the experiment, but this is not a death ray. In fact, other than some vague, unfocused research, the military isn't really in the death ray business anymore. Well, there is the Airborne Laser, but that is a whole other story.

-- Jeffrey Lewis

UPDATE 4:01 PM: You wanna talk real laser weapons? some of the most interesting directed energy work was outlined in Noah's article in Popular Science, "Attack at the Speed of Light," which showcases efforts by two erstwhile SDI scientsists, now competing to build much smaller lasers to tackle practical missions like shooting down mortars.

UPDATE 6:24 PM: For a completely different take, check out this paper from the Center for Defense Information.

UPDATE 05/04/06 10:42 AM: John Fleck has a great follow-up to the Starfire flap in today's Albuquerque Journal.

Hitchens explained that there long has been a sort of "gentleman's agreement" among nations not to mess with one another's satellites.

The reason is rooted in the complex calculus of nuclear deterrence. A nation with the ability to watch for enemy missile launches is less likely to accidentally start a nuclear war, she explained...

Vansuch said next year's proposed test would be the first time the Starfire technology has been used to focus an outgoing laser.

The test would be no death ray, but rather a very low power experiment. "The basic physics is what we're after," Vansuch said.

(Big ups: Larry Ahrens)

Laser Labs Go Back to the Future

George Neil and Bob Yamamoto don't remember exactly where they were when they found out that the Pentagon was canceling their laser cannon project. But they remember how they felt.

yamamoto_1.jpgIt was 1988, and Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" anti-missile effort was in its death-spiral. Their employer, the defense contractor TRW, was competing against Boeing in an increasingly rococo effort to build a Free Electron Laser, or FEL, that would knock missiles out of the sky. But, after a half-billion dollars of investment, the laser in Neil and Yamamoto's lab was peaking out at 11 watts – a tenth of what a light bulb generates, and a billionth of what the Pentagon would need. That didn't stop company executives from promising that a weapon was right around the corner. "It was like a game of liar's poker," Neil recalls. "We kept hoping some sanity would prevail. It never did."

So there was a certain amount of relief when the Pentagon finally pulled the plug – as well as anger, and regret. Both Neil and Yamamoto believed in the FEL. Given a shot, they thought, the laser really could stop a rogue missile. Along the way, the breakthroughs required in high energy physics and optics and superconductivity would have far-reaching benefits, even if an ICBM never got zapped. Neil especially hated how reckless promises and politicking and killed that chance. As news of the cancellation sank in, the two colleagues and friends each independently made a promise to himself: If I ever get to build a laser weapon again, next time, it's going to be done right.

My article in the upcoming issue of Popular Science is about Neil and Yamamoto's attempts to stick to that promise, and build lasers that could actually be used for battle.

Ironically, both men have reached back into energy weapons' history to accomplish their goals. In the vineyards of northern California, Bob Yamamoto is constructing a solid state laser with enormous crystals at its core – the same way the very first lasers did, back the 1960’s. 2,700 miles away, in the forests of southern Virginia, George Neil is putting together a modern-day FEL. It doesn’t need any sort of material whatsoever to kickstart its reaction. Instead, the machine relies on a stream of electrons – just like the laser he and Yamamoto worked on nearly a quarter-century ago.

UPDATE 11:27 AM: Here's a video of Neil's FEL at work, coring a hole in a plexiglass brick.

UPDATE 11:42 AM: For years, chemical-powered lasers were seen as the only viable alternative for weapons-strength ray guns. The most promising of those systems, the Tactical High Energy Laser, successfully shot down dozens of rockets and mortars. (this video shows it in action.) But generating the THEL's megawatts of laser power required hundreds of gallons of toxic chemicals — ethylene, nitrogen trifluoride. The weapons grew bulky (the small-scale version was only supposed to be kept in a mere right cargo containers, each 40 feet long). Worse, after a few shots, the lasers would have to be resupplied with a fresh batch of reactants. The logistics of hauling those toxins either through the air or across a battlefield made generals shiver. So, ultimately, interest swung back to solid state systems, like Yamamoto's, and, to a lesser extent, free electron lasers.

UDPATE 04/14/06 11:33 AM: I know some folks were having trouble checking out those videos. PopSci now has 'em posted in a more watchable format.

Laser Jet's Toxic Interior

It turns out those scary Air Force documents are good for something other than guiding firefighters and triggering panicked headlines. They also show just how hard it would be to actually make a laser-firing 747 work.

abl_patch.jpgThe $7.3 billion Airborne Laser is the Air Force's attempt to refit a commercial 747 jet with a chemical-powered laser. But it hasn't been easy -- missed deadlines, bloated budgets, you name it.

One of the bigger problems is the chemicals needed to start the laser chain-reaction aren't exactly the most stable and healthiest things to have around: 1,000 pounds of chlorine, 1,000 pounds of ammonia, 12,000 pounds of hydrogen peroxide, 220 gallons of sulphuric acid.

They're so toxic, in fact, that the Air Force documents recommend that "all personnel must be [in the] forward [part of the plane] "during taxi, takeoff, and landing." Going to the Airborne Laser's aft "in flight is only allowed during a declared emergency, and then only for the absolute minimum duration, in Level A hazmat suit."

Now, some folks out there have been pushing the Airborne Laser, hard. They really dig the idea of energy weapons, and want to see one built, finally, after decades of promising.

I think it's safe to say that anyone visiting this site has a soft spot for ray guns. But a weapon with limited range, a handful of shots, in-flight maintenance costs of $92,000 per hour, and enough chemicals that the crew has to wear hazmat suits to stay aboard? I'd rather wait for my energy weapons, thank you very much.

(Big ups: Michael)

Arrrrr!!! Pain Ray Goes A-Sailin'

I know some of you have been worried. Sure, the American military is planning to roll out a microwave-like pain ray on land. And there's talk about making an airborne model of the so-called "Active Denial System," to control unruly crowds from above. But what if the evil-doers take to the seas? How will we roast them alive, then?

nonlethal-weaponry_nr.jpgNever fear. "The Active Denial System... may soon be used by the Coast Guard for port protection," Defense Tech pal Sharon Weinberger reports for Aviation Week.

Developed by the Air Force, Active Denial fires out milimeter waves -- a sort of cousin of microwaves, in the 95 GHz range. The invisible beams penetrate just a 64th of inch beneath the skin. But that's deep enough to trigger the pain receptors inside a person. Which makes folks want to run away, fast. Less-lethal weapon guru Sid Heal calls the ray the "Holy Grail of crowd control."

One of the systems was scheduled for shipment to Eglin AFB, Fla., where it's set to undergo a military utility assessment (MUA) for overwater operations, according to Sue Payton, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for advanced systems and concepts.

"The Coast Guard is very interested in how this capability would work to stop and redirect a driver of a small boat away from a port or ship," says Payton, whose office has been involved in integrating the technology into a deployable weapon...

Since the 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, the Navy has sought ways to ward off small boats that could pose threats to ports or ships. The Coast Guard, similarly, is also exploring threats from small vessels.

The testing at Eglin, scheduled for Apr. 11-20, will feature the Active Denial System mounted on a hybrid-electric Humvee and based at a dock, with five Coast Guard boats participating in the assessment. Payton says the testing will look at a variety of factors, such as the beam's impact through glass and windows...

Other adaptations of the technology are in the works as well, including a... version [that] will be packaged in a Conex shipping box so that the system can be mounted on larger vehicles, and not just Humvees. "You can go to a bigger capability on trucks," she notes.

UPDATE 12:41 PM: You know, if cruise ships are already using sonic blasters to ward off pirates, maybe its not so crazy for the Coasties to have a pain ray gun.

Red Skies at Night, Ray Guns' Delight?

Let's say you're an Air Force bigwig. You need to decide whether to invest in some shiny new directed energy weapon. Sure, "attack at the speed of light" sounds mighty good, but will the weapon actually work under the conditions you’re interested in, or will it run into some obstacle – like, the atmosphere?

ATLC-130-sunset.jpgYou can't just test-fire a mockup – because nothing similar exists yet, and, more importantly, because these things don't really scale very neatly. The experiences of other DE programs have got you worried.

Well, now there's a computer model to help you predict just how a high-energy laser (HEL) weapon will behave under real conditions. The High Energy Laser End-to-End Operational Simulation (HELEEOS), described in this upcoming paper, is the outcome of a multi-year, joint effort to create such a planning tool for use throughout the DOD and the military.

Why is this so important? Well, laser physics is not exactly an area in which most high-level decision-makers have a lot of technical intuition. And with all the different effects that go into the performance of a laser weapon – from those inside the laser and its companion optical systems, to the bewildering menagerie of phenomena known collectively as "atmospheric effects," to beam-target interaction effects – it's even hard for the pros to answer such a basic question as "how much range will we gain if we double the laser power?"

The potential for poor decision-making is apparent in the history of the Airborne Laser program. As long ago as 2004, a thorough (and not-unsympathetic) report by the American Physical Society concluded that the ABL’s lethal range would be so short that intercepting an ICBM launched from central Iran, for example, could only be accomplished, at best, from one small area in southwestern Turkmenistan. Yet the program still survives.

In fact, the paper tacitly admits that all is not well within the HEL weapons community, stating that one of the primary purposes of HELEEOS is "the establishment of trust among military leaders."

So, what does this computer program do? Basically, for a set of laser parameters (size, power, wavelength) and engagement geometry (distance from source to target, altitudes and velocities of source and target, and so on), HELEEOS estimates how long the laser would need to dwell on the target in order to achieve a certain probability of kill – if a kill is even possible.

But there's more – and this is where HELEEOS gets really cool. In order to model the effect of the atmosphere, the simulation taps into a massive database of worldwide climate data and into detailed models of atmospheric phenomena. This lets the user tailor the simulation of the weapon's performance to a particular location and time of year, and even to different weather conditions – so you'll know whether your new toy will work not just at Kirtland Air Force Base, but on a muggy night in Pyongyang or a dusty day in Kuwait.

(Of course, there's a catch to this: the climate data is complete only for those corners of the world where the US military has friends – so, for example, there's an inconvenient Iran-shaped blank on the map.)

Now, here's this week's $64,000 question: will this new "investment strategy tool," as the paper describes it, really close the realism-deficit in HEL planning? It might; on the other hand, it might just give any unscrupulous folks a powerful tool for figuring out just which figures they need to fudge. I've argued elsewhere that technology, however useful, will not solve the problem of insurgency warfare alone; the same can be said for the problem of poor acquisition practices.

-- Haninah Levine

Laser Planes' Pains

Jane's has a good overview of the ray gun world's state of play. The bits about the problems facing the beam-firing 747, the Airborne Laser, and the blaster-equipped cargo plane, the Advanced Tactical Laser, are particularly juicy.

atl.jpgFull-on flight tests of the Airborne Laser, or ABL, have been pushed back to 2008. But "some aspects of the system cannot be demonstrated on the ground," Jane's notes. "Laser performance in real high-altitude conditions and the performance of the entire system at high altitudes. As in a rocket, the chemical systems in the COIL [chemical oxygen iodine laser, the ABL's weapon] are affected by atmospheric pressure at the exhaust outlet, which creates back pressure in the flow path."

Another issue is logistics: hydrogen peroxide is corrosive and a powerful solvent of organic materials (including people) and potassium hydroxide is a toxic material used as a drain cleaner and (by Norwegians) to preserve codfish. Neither is used by any other military system, so the chemicals require new storage and transport facilities and special training and handling procedures...

The USAF's other airborne COIL project is the ATL [Advanced Tactical Laser], which has a budget of $200 million [and] is due for high-power flight tests in mid-2007, aboard an C-130H platform.

ATL has a much lower power goal than the ABL - in the tens of kilowatts rather than megawatts - and is intended to disable rather than kill its targets, demonstrating the ability of lasers to achieve specific, ultra-precise effects. The design reference missions for ATL are to stop a moving vehicle and disable a communications node from 10,000 ft.

Stopping a vehicle does not necessarily mean destroying it or killing its occupants. If the laser can penetrate the engine cover, for example, the temperature within the engine compartment is likely to get higher than is mechanically optimal. The laser could penetrate the fuel tank and start a fire. In the case of a communications target, cables and antennas could be the weak spots.

Delivery of hardware for the ATL... started during 2005 and the C-130 platform was delivered to Boeing in January this year... Unlike the ABL, the ATL does not vent harmful gases into the atmosphere: the exhaust is ducted into a container of activated carbon, which absorbs and neutralises it.

While ATL presents less risk than ABL, it is more likely to be overtaken by other developments: primarily, the development of more powerful solid-state lasers. The attractions of a solid-state laser - which uses a solid transmissive material as the lasing medium - are clear, notes AFRL's Hamil: the 'magazine' can be as deep as the aircraft's fuel tanks (which can be replenished in flight) and there are no exotic fuels to handle and no chemical exhaust. The disadvantage is that solid-state lasers today do not have the power to do anything other than illuminate. At high powers, 'thermal lensing' - the change in optical qualities with heat - becomes what Hamil calls "horrific", making it difficult to produce a high-quality beam.

(Big ups: Eric)

Laser Mirrors May Get Testy

Laser weapons have a serious shortcoming, in the minds of some Pentagon thinkers. No, it's not the fact that it takes giant vats of chemicals or a gazillion watts of power to get the beam machines to work. Or that a fair-sized rainstorm pretty much renders them useless. It's that lasers can only zap as far as the eye can see. The beams don't curve, so ray guns can't reach over the horizon.

L-Mirror-3.jpgThe Defense Department's Office of Force Transformation wants to change that, however, with a world-wide ring of giant mirrors, that would bounce laser light to wherever the Pentagon saw fit.

The transformation shop has been talking about this Tactical Relay Mirror System, or TRMS, for several years. Now, they may be ready to start some early-stage testing, Inside Defense reports.

“Some of the work that we’re doing on this is very advanced, and [has] come along very well,” Col. Craig Hughes said. “And certainly the test of the laboratory-sized aerospace relay mirror come this spring will be a significant development for us.”

Maybe the mirrors would be connected to a set of giant blimps, some have suggested. Maybe they'd be strapped onto robotic planes. But, strangely, Inside Defense notes, Hughes and his fellow mirror men seem to be tying their program to the star-crossed Airborne Laser, or ABL. That's the 747, modified for ray gunning, that's been sinking rather rapidly in the military's estimation. Flight tests for the thing are now six years behind schedule, and the project was recently demoted down to a technology demonstrator,

“If you put [a mirror] on an airship right above ABL, you instantly double the range of ABL and eventually maybe these things can go into space.”

Considering that the ABL is the only part of this little scenario that's anything more than a PowerPoint slide, however, I guess Hughes and Co. don't really have a choice. Keep on blasting, boys.

Laser Jet Demoted

Some readers got all bent out of shape last month, when I dared to suggest that laser weapons -- especially the modified 747 Airborne Laser -- weren't ready to move beyond science fiction. (They didn't like how I used the words "whiz-bang" and "shit," either.)

abl-takeoff.jpgThose people are going to be double-mad now, I suppose. Because "the multibillion-dollar Airborne Laser (ABL) program, considered the Pentagon's best chance to develop a weapon to defeat ballistic missiles in their early, boost phase of flight, is being relegated to a technology demonstration status while a planned five-aircraft purchase by the Air Force is put on hold."

The ABL was supposed to start zapping missiles in 2002. Then it was pushed back to 2005. Now, the test is scheduled for 2008. Maybe. Until then, Pentagon's approach to the program is wait and see. Only after that will it be "serious time," a senior Defense Department official says. Originally slated to cost a billion dollars, the ABL has grown into a $7.3 billion behemoth.

Despite all this, the ABL remains the Pentagon's "primary" efort to wack ballistic missiles in their early, "boost" phase. The other big project in the area, the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (a projectile which slams into the missile, basically), had its budget cut by $5 billion over 5 years.

The DOD official said last week the agency is “not committing the funding to complete the program” until KEI successfully demonstrates [its] propulsion system in 2008. “So in 2008 there are two knowledge points,” he said. “For ABL it is the shoot-down. For KEI it is a test of the propulsion stack. We will not flesh out the funding until then.”

Moscow's Remote-Controlled Heart Attacks

This is the second of David Hambling's two-part series on plasma and electromagnetic weapons. Check out part one here.

heart-attack-picture.gifThe American military may want to attack the nervous system, with pain rays and laser plasma pulses. But they're not the only ones. The Russians have long studied such systems, too -- including one weapon that could, in theory, remotely trigger heart attacks.

In 2003, at the 2nd European Symposium on Non-Lethal Weapons, Anatoly Korolev and his colleagues from Moscow State University presented a paper with the snappy title "Bioelectrodynamic Criterion of the NLW Effectiveness Estimation and the Interaction mechanisms of the multilayer Skin Tissues with electromagnetic Radiation." This is a study of how radio-frequency weapons -- like the American Active Denial System -- affect the skin. After wading through a mass of technical data showing how complex the interactions are we reach the punch line:

The sensations modality (pricking, touch, pressure, gooseflesh, touch, burning pain etc) depends on the field parameters and individual concrete human being factors. As a matter of fact, we can really choose the non-lethal bioeffect.

The effects include sensations similar to those discussed previously, and more besides. The paper discusses effects on cell membranes and affecting the body’s normal function, including "information transfer to the organs of control."

At the same conference, V Makukhin of the Trymas Engineering Center in Moscow described "Electronic equipment for complex influence on biological objects." And when he says "biological objects," he means you and me.

His laboratory apparatus uses a modulated beam of radio waves to produce what he terms "disorder of autonomic nervous system," put forward as a possible non-lethal weapon. Makhunin notes that there is no general agreement on how EM waves disrupt nerves - he mentions ion channels similar to those in the plasma paper - but he certainly seems to be seeing the same effects as American researchers.

But it need not be a non-lethal weapon. Makhunin also mentions the effects of "change of electrocardiogram" and what he calls "function break of heart muscle."

The vulnerability of the heart to electrical stimulation (including that produced by EM waves) is well documented. A lethal device would interfere with the electrical potentials that keep the chambers of the heart synchronized, producing fibrillation and rapid death. A death ray doesn’t need to be a truck-sized laser that reduces the target to smoking heap; a small device that stops the heart will do the job.

Little has been openly published in this area in the public domain, but this may be the tip of the iceberg. We are likely to be hearing more in future - especially if the Russians manage to find funding.

I don’t think we need tinfoil hats just yet. But a layer of conducting mesh built into body armor might save a lot of heartache in years to come.

(If you want more, there’s a whole chapter on different non-lethal directed energy weapons and where the technology might lead in my book Weapons Grade. )

-- David Hambling

Air Force Plan: Hack Your Nervous System

This is the first of a two-part series on plasma and electromagnetic weapons by David Hambling, author of Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-Tech World.

The brain has always been a battlefield. New weapons might be able to hack directly into your nervous system.

"Controlled Effects" (see image, right) is one of the Air Force’s ambitious long-term challenges. It starts with better and more accurate bombs, but moves on to discuss devices that "make selected adversaries think or act according to our needs... By studying and modeling the human brain and nervous system, the ability to mentally influence or confuse personnel is also possible."

LTChallenge-08-IMG2.JPGThe first stage is technology to “remotely create physical sensations.” They give the example of the Active Denial System "people zapper" which uses a high-frequency radiation similar to microwaves as a non-lethal means of crowd control.

Other weapons can affect the nervous system directly. The Pulsed Energy Projectile fires a short intense pulse of laser energy. This vaporizes the outer layer of the target, creating a rapidly-expanding expanding ball of plasma. At different power levels, those expanding plasmas could deliver a harmless warning, stun the target, or disable them - all with pinpoint laser precision from a mile away.

Early reports on the effects of PEPs mentioned temporary paralysis, then thought to be related to ultrasonic shockwaves. It later became apparent that the electromagnetic pulse caused by the expanding plasma was triggering nerve cells.

Details of this emerged in a heavily-censored document released to Ed Hammond of the Sunshine Project under the Freedom if Information Act. Called “Sensory consequence of electromagnetic pulsed emitted by laser induced plasmas,” it described research on activating the nerve cells responsible for sensing unpleasant stimuli: heat, damage, pressure, cold. By selectively stimulating a particular nociceptor, a finely tuned PEP might sensations of say, being burned, frozen or dipped in acid -- all without doing the slightest actual harm.

The skin is the easiest target for such stimulation. But, in principle, any sensory nerves could be triggered. The Controlled Effects document suggests “it may be possible to create synthetic images…to confuse an individual' s visual sense or, in a similar manner, confuse his senses of sound, taste, touch, or smell.”

In other words, it may be possible to use electromagnetic means to create overwhelming 'sound' or 'light', or indeed 'intolerable smell' which would exist only in the brain of the person perceiving them.

There is another side as well. The “sensory consequences” document also notes that the nervous system which controls muscles could be influenced to cause what they call “Taser-like motor effects.” The stun gun’s ability to shock the muscles into malfunction is relatively crude; we might now be looking at are much more targeted effects.

Tomorrow: Moscow moves in. Remote-controlled heart attacks, anyone?

-- David Hambling

Real-Life Ray Gun: Say When?

JIN.jpgI was skeptical, when I first heard about the idea of using lasers and man-made lightning to detonate explosives at a distance. Not only did the technology sound fantastic. But the company pushing the real-life ray gun, Tucscon's Ionatron Inc., seemed so damn squirrely -- long on press releases and shady political connections, short on specifics about how their technology really worked. And that's before you start digging into the questionable stock deals and patent violations. So I wrote Ionatron off for while, despite more and more headlines about the firm and its "Joint IED Neutralizer" -- JIN, for short.

Then, over the summer, I got a call from an Army general who had seen the thing in action. By using femtosecond lasers – light pulses that last less than a ten-trillionth of a second – JIN could carve conductive channels of ionized oxygen in the air. Through these XXXX-foot channels, Ionatron's blaster sent man-made lighting bolts. And they actually seem to work at neutralizing bombs. "We understand the physics of what we're trying to do. Now we're just working on the engineering," the general told me. "I think we're going to solve that problem -- and this is just a guess -- in 12 months, maybe 18."

It turns out the general wasn't the only one who was impressed. Last year, "then-deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz recommended investing $30 million in research and sending prototypes to Iraq for testing," the L.A. Times reports. Ionatron CEO Tom Dearmin told eDefense that the first of 12 units would be in Iraq by the end of July.

"But 10 months later — and after a prototype destroyed about 90% of the IEDs laid in its path during a battery of tests — not a single JIN has been shipped to Iraq," the Times notes. "To many in the military, the delay in deploying the vehicles, which resemble souped-up, armor-plated golf carts, is a case study in the Pentagon's inability to bypass cumbersome peacetime procedures to meet the urgent demands of troops in the field."

"The decision has been made that it's not yet mature enough," said Army Brig. Gen. Dan Allyn, deputy director of... the Joint IED Defeat Organization. Iraq is "not the place to be testing unproven technology."

But the Marine Corps believes otherwise and recently decided to circumvent the testing schedule and send JIN units to Al Anbar province in western Iraq... Based on their performance, Marine commanders said, they hope the device can eventually be used throughout Iraq.

Just about every arm of the Defense Department that deals with R&D; has been struggling to figure out when to send new technologies to the field. Wait too long, and you're robbing troops of a valuable tool. Field a gadget too quickly, the un-worked-out kinks can ruin its reputation in the military for a while. Troops can even get hurt, relying on an unstable machine.

Usually, the Pentagon errs on the side of caution. Some of the most valuable tools in Afghanistan and Iraq -- the Predator drone, the Stryker armored vehicle -- were deemed not ready for prime time by Defense Department testers.

But despite "thousands of little items found wrong with the Stryker," it was fielded anyway, Army Test and Evaluation Command chief Major General James Myles told me recently. The problems were small and fixable enough that the Stryker was sent out "four or five years" earlier than what the old regulations would've required. So what if the brakes don't work in the extreme cold? "We can't wait for a perfect solution to get a weapon to the field."

The Times pairs the JIN hold-up with the "military's failure to provide sufficient body armor and adequate armor for transport vehicles." But that's not quite right. There's a big difference between getting proven life-savers to a combat zone, and figuring out when something brand new is good enough to be deployed. That goes double for ray guns.

UPDATE 03/21/06 9:38 AM: This post, and some of the comments to it, have been modified in the interest of operational security.

Pain Ray, Sonic Blaster, Laser Dazzler - All in One

For a while, now, I've been hearing about the Defense Department's plans to outfit a fighting vehicle with a pain ray, a sonic blaster, and a laser dazzler, too. I never figured they'd actually send the thing to Iraq, though. Project Sheriff, I assumed, would just be the military equivalent of a concept car -- a chance to see if some whiz-bang gear really worked together.

ADS_big.jpgBut the Pentagon may wind up deploying this straight-outta-sci-fi jalopy, after all. The Army just got the OK to spend $31.3 million on three deployable Project Sheriff vehicles, Inside Defense is reporting.

Right now, a "non-deployable Spiral 0 prototype" [Sheriff] is "undergoing environmental testing," according to the newsletter -- and waiting for one of the armed services to adopt the program as its own. That looks like it's happened, now. The "Spiral 1" Sheriff will equip either a Stryker fighting vehicle or a Cougar mine-fighter with the dazzler, the blaster, and the like. Oh, and it'll still have guns, too.

By combining the lethal and nonlethal technologies on a vehicle, [Marine Corps Col. Wade] Hall said a warfighter would be able to discriminate the noncombatants from insurgents by first employing the nonlethal capabilities and then progressing to the use of lethal force.

For example, if a convoy led by a Project Sheriff vehicle was moving through an urban area, a crowd may form to divert the convoy into an “ambush zone,” according to Hall.

If this were to happen, the first thing the crowd would hear is the Long Range Acoustic Device either telling the crowd to move or giving off a noise that would “bother their hearing.” Next, the Lazzer Dazzler would scan the crowd looking for a flicker from the scope of a possible sniper.

If the crowd was still in place, troops would employ the active denial technology [AKA the pain ray].

“If they try and deflect beams then we will kill them because we know what their intentions are,” Hall said. “Now I know what your intent is. I just told you to move, I just flashed some light in you that said ‘hey get away from me.’ I just put some effect on you that said ‘please move or its going to get worse’ and you continue to tell me that you have an ill intent for me and my fellow Marines. So now I will bring some lethal force to bear if it satisfies my [rules of engagement].”

In an April 7, 2005, memo, Army Brig. Gen. James Huggings, the chief of staff for the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff to approve funding for the “time critical” material release, fielding and sustainment of the “Full-Spectrum Effects Weapon Systems,” the technical name for Project Sheriff vehicles.

“This will allow operating forces to exploit the psychological dilemma of adversaries who are faced with advanced precision capabilities having multiple effects mechanism that are collectively more challenging to protect against,” Huggins wrote. “This will serve to transfer the difficulties of operational complexity to the enemy, helping to allow MNC-I forces to regain the initiative in fourth generation warfare.”

Huggins proposes the Army receive eight vehicles -- four for the 18th Military Police Brigade and four for the 42nd Military Police Brigade -- and the Marines receive six.

In an April 19, 2005, response to Huggins, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Castellaw, chief of staff for U.S. Central Command, said the request for 14 Project Sheriff vehicles was fully supported by CENTCOM.

Laser Weapons "Almost Ready?" Not!

If you’re into military technology at all, somewhere in the back of your mind, you want laser guns to happen. Because they’re cool. Han Solo cool. Starbuck cool. James T. Kirk cool.

THEL_sunset.jpgBut wanting something to happen is very different from having it happen. And we are still a ways off – like a decade, at the very least, and probably more – from deployable laser weapons.

Which is not the impression you’d get from this Space.com article, or the book which it covers, Doug Beason’s The E-Bomb: How America’s New Directed Energy Weapons Will Change the Way Wars Will Be Fought in the Future.

The U.S. "is on the verge of deploying a new generation of weapons that discharge beams of energy, such as the Airborne Laser and the Active Denial System, as well as the Tactical High Energy Laser,” Space.com says.

Um, not exactly. The Active Denial System – that’s the microwave-esque pain ray we’ve discussed before – is getting closer to be fielded, yeah. But the laser systems? No way. The Airborne Laser is billions over budget and years past its initial deadline. The Tactical High Energy Laser, it was cancelled last year. The reason is basically the same in both cases: each weapon relies on giant vats of toxic chemicals to produce its laser light. And very few people in the military feel like hauling all that goop off to war.

But Beason – I met him last year, and read a galley of his book months before it came out – says money can fix many of those woes.

At present, directed-energy systems "are barely limping along with enough money just to prove that they can work," Beason pointed out. Meanwhile, huge slugs of money are being put into legacy-type systems to keep them going.

"It’s a matter of priority," Beason said. The time is now to identify high-payoff, directed-energy projects for the smallest amounts of money, he said.

In Beason’s view, Active Denial Technology, the Airborne Laser program and the THEL project, as well as supporting technologies such as relay mirrors, are all works in progress that give reason for added support and priority funding.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of military scientists over the past four years. And nearly all of them have told me the same thing, no matter how far-out their research is: if the government would just give me a couple of hundred million dollars, then if I would have some seriously whiz-bang shit ready to go, pronto.

Energy weapon guys often give the same rap. But these chemical-based lasers -- no amount of money is going to solve the logistical headaches of carting around and handling the toxic materials they require.

The only alternative, in the (relatively) short term: solid state lasers, which get their energy from excited crystals. The problem is that the power you get from such beams, about 25 kilowatts, is a tiny fraction -- about two percent -- of what the megawatt that chemical lasers produce.

There are development efforts underway to boost that power. I just got back from Northrop Grumman's solid state laser lab, which, within three years, could very well have the first solid state laser that the military could conceivably think of as weapons grade. But even if that 100 kilowatt laser comes off without a hitch, we're still looking at a long time before we hit Han Solo territory. Which is too bad, really.

Inside the Air Force's Laser Lab

I love the bit in Bond films where 007 goes round Q’s laboratory checking out the latest top-secret gadgets. That’s why I enjoyed talking to Capt.Wegner and his colleagues at ScorpWorks, source of a variety of laser weapons and other one-of-a-kind devices.

ACCM.jpgThe ScorpWorks is the Air Force Research Laboratory’s in-house development team for laser system prototypes. Although it has existed since 1992, they have shunned publicity until this year. A laser weapon does not need to convert the target into smoking rubble: they are much more versatile than that.

The Laser AirCraft CounterMeasures (ACCM), which I detail in this week's New Scientist, is a nonlethal coaxial laser that sits alongside a helicopter door gun. It dazzles the target, preventing them from firing accurately and providing protection for the helicopter, but without risking civilian casualties.

It’s more than a dazzler. Experience with the Saber 203 laser dazzler in Somalia showed that it was too low-powered to affect vision, but anyone illuminated beat a hasty retreat as they knew a weapon was being aimed at them. The ACCM should have a similar effect, scattering potential threats on the ground and leaving only the truly dangerous ones - and the 4,000 rpm minigun should deal with them.

The PHaSR laser-dazzling rifle unveiled a few weeks ago is similar (and not a hoax). In a riot-control situation, the idea is that lighting people up with this portable laser will separate peaceful protesters from the stone-throwers. The PhaSR’s dual-wavelength laser will also make countermeasures difficult, and Capt. Wegner points out that the end product will probably be very different to the bulky prototype.

The PHaSR is a relative of the Portable Efficient Laser Testbed (PELT). This is another riot-control weapon, but one that works by heat – "the first man-portable heat compliance weapon of its kind" Take a close look at the picture of PELT on page 52 here and you'll see a signature Scorpion logo – a rare visible sign of ScorpWorks handiwork.

Elsewhere they've been utilizing the laser as a sensor. By picking up the reflections back from the human eye, invisible laser sensors can detect people looking at them - similar to the way animal eyes light up when you shine a flashlight on them. A sniper detection system is in the works.

Even more sophisticated is BOSS, the Battlefield Optical Surveillance System. This is a vehicle-mounted setup which uses retro-reflection and a number of other technologies to spot targets in pitch darkness. It can be locate, identify and invisibly designate targets, so they won’t even know they've been spotted until a laser-guided weapon hits (and probably not even then). Exactly how far advanced BOSS or its successors are is not known.

The ScorpWorks name is a deliberate echo of Lockheed’s famous Skunk Works, renowned for producing world-beating aircraft like the F-117 stealth fighter and SR-71 Blackbird on time and within budget, a feat achieved following a set of bureaucracy-busting rules laid down by the legendary Kelly Johnson.

ScorpWorks reckon that many projects get completed within two years and with prototypes built for less than $300k. At that price you could get about 20,000 different projects for the price of one Airborne Laser.

The Skunk Works is famous for the many black programs that originated there, and you do get the impression with ScorpWorks that what they have revealed is the tip of the iceberg. We know their customers include Special Operations Command, Air Force, Marines, DARPA and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, but we don’t know what they bought. Even their unclassified programs can only be discussed in broad terms. If they told me more, they’d probably have to kill me – but I bet they’d use a really impressive laser.

-- David Hambling

Pain Ray Headed to Iraq?

It's been talked about for years. But the Pentagon's microwave-like pain ray may finally be headed to Iraq, Inside the Army reports.

active_denial_system.jpgDeveloped by the Air Force, the so-called "Active Denial System" (ADS) fires out milimeter waves -- a sort of cousin of microwaves, in the 95 GHz range. The invisible beams penetrate just a 64th of inch beneath the skin. But that's deep enough to heat up the water inside a person. Which is enough to cause excruciating pain.

Seconds later, people have to run away. And that causes mobs to break up in a hurry. It's no wonder, then, why less-lethal weapon guru Charles "Sid" Heal calls the ray the "Holy Grail of crowd control."

Raytheon has been developing a Humvee-mountable ADS for the Pentagon over the last couple of years, as part of an ACTD, or "advanced concept technology demonstration."

By now, the system was supposed to be in the field. But there have been concerns that the ADS tests weren't sufficiently realistic. The Pentagon ordered additional trials. More than 2,370 ADS shots were fired during a pair of "military utility assessments" over the fall.

Now, the head of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force -- the unit in charge of getting gear to the troops in a hurry -- is saying: enough.

The system's "capabilities have, to date, been sufficiently demonstrated in the ACTD [advanced concept technology demonstration] to prove its value to the solider," Col. Robert Lovett notes in a memo, obtained by Inside the Army.

And the 18th Military Police Brigade has requested ADS "to help 'suppress' insurgent attacks and quell prison uprisings."

ADS' technical manager, Diana Loree, said the system "now meets all of the ACTD performance parameters," Inside the Army notes.

"Because the system is a hand-built, one-of-a-kind technology demonstrator, it does not meet conventional humvee curb weight requirements... However, the technology team worked closely with [Humvee manufacturer] AM General to ensure the safety of the system and its occupants."

There has also been talk, at least, of building an airborne model of ADS -- as well as putting together a Hummer with both pain rays and sonic blasters. Needless to say, neither project is as far along as the basic Active Denial System.

Laser Rifle Dazzles?

Granted, the thing looks fake. And no, I can't find this supposed press release anywhere else on the web -- which is usually a bad sign.

dazzler_maybe.jpgBut... c'mon. How could I resist posting about this alleged Air Force super-duper laser dazzler, especially when it's called PHaSR? (That's short for "Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response," by the way.)

The Air Force Research Lab opens up around 11am eastern time. I hope to have an answer shortly after. But until then... Enjoy!

A laser technology being developed by Air Force Research Laboratory employees at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. will be the first man-portable, non-lethal deterrent weapon intended for protecting troops and controlling hostile crowds.

The weapon, developed by the laboratory's Directed Energy Directorate, employs a two-wavelength laser system and is the first of its kind as a hand-held, single-operator system for troop and perimeter defense. The laser light used in the weapon temporarily impairs aggressors by illuminating or "dazzling" individuals, removing their ability to see the laser source.

The first two prototypes of the Personnel Halting and Stimulation Response, or PHaSR, were built at Kirtland last month and delivered to the laboratory's Human Effectiveness Directorate at Brooks City Base, Texas, and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate at Quantico, Va. for testing.

"The future is here with PHaSR," said program manager Capt. Thomas Wegner. Wegner is also the ScorpWorks flight commander within the Laser Division of the directorate. ScorpWorks is a unit of military scientists and engineers that develops laser system prototypes for AFRL, from beginning concept to product field testing.

The National Institute of Justice recently awarded ScorpWorks $250,000 to make an advanced prototype that will add an eye-safe laser range finder into PHaSR. Systems such as PHaSR have historically been too powerful at close ranges and ineffective but eye-safe at long ranges. The next prototype... is planned for completion in March 2006.

THERE'S MORE: "A task force charged with studying potential directed energy threats to U.S. military aircraft... has sent senior service leaders a plan to ensure next-generation planes protect pilots and crews from laser attacks," Inside Defense reports. There's not much detail, however, on what that paln entails, other than more laser-safe eyewear.

AND MORE: Confirmed.

Microwaves Vs. Missiles

PM_airport_zapper.jpgSecurity experts have been spooked since 2002, when terrorists tried to take down an Israeli passenger jet flying out of Kenya with a pair of Soviet-made, shoulder-fired missiles.

Defense contractor Raytheon may have found a futuristic answer to the throwback threat: a microwave blaster that confuses the weapons' guidance systems.

The Vigilant Eagle system uses a series of passive infrared trackers, surrounding an airport, that look out for missile exhaust. When these sensors detect a launch, data about the missile's trajectory is sent to a control center, which in turn tells a billboard-size microwave array where to blast.

My Popular Mechanics article has a few more details.

Radar = Ray Gun?

The British government was spooked back in 1935. Not because of Hitler’s air force or his infantry. Because of his death ray.

Newspapers screamed that the Nazis might have a super-weapon that could incinerate living tissue or detonate a bomb at long distance. Flooded by letters begging for a response, the British Air Ministry asked prominent physicist Robert Watson-Watt to see if a radio-wave-based death ray was feasible.

killer-radar.jpgWithin ten days Watson-Watt reported that such a weapon was unlikely. But using radio waves to locate an approaching bomber was a real possibility. And that's how radar was born.

Now, seventy years later, the invention may be coming full circle, Aviation Week reports. The Pentagon is actively developing active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars that might be "used as weapons. They are fulfilling the U.S. Air Force's desire for offensive tools that can find enemy threats, accurately identify them and immediately strike."

Some of the airborne AESA radars... use thousands of small transmitters/receivers, each a couple of inches square, that allow the array to conduct many tasks simultaneously. Those include detection of small, even stealthy targets, tracking and communications... and "jamming"... Possible AESA techniques for attacking another radar could include burning through the target radar's antenna side-lobes, filter side-lobes, or other known features of the target system. Radar specialists suggest it is reasonable to suppose this capability is already available to some fielded systems...

[Airborne radar weapon development] appear[s] to be focused on cruise missiles and self-defense against anti-radiation, home-on-jam and air-to-air missiles. The radars seem particularly effective against the latter categories because energy available to focus on the approaching missile increases as an inverse square as distance decreases.

Radar's close cousins, High Power Microwaves (HPMs), are also being groomed as energy weapons. They tend to generate ultra-strong bursts across a range of frequencies, for just a few trillionths of a second. AESA would zap targets with longer, more directed blasts.

While HPM produces higher peak power, AESA often generates greater average power. That produces different operational and targeting strategies. For example, Raytheon's [HPM-based] airport protection system uses infrared sensors to find the target and determine where to focus its beam. It also produces effects at longer range, possibly as much as 100 mi., because it produces powerful pulses of energy. AESA radar has the built-in ability to find and track a target, so it can be held on the target for the necessary additional microseconds needed to create its weapons effect.

Some HPM pulses are designed to be very broadband, covering "many gigahertz" of frequencies, so they are more likely to find any opening or vulnerability in a target, the radar specialist says. AESA radar has a narrower frequency range, but it uses its radar capability to identify a target, search a library for its vulnerable frequencies and then tailor the signal for the specific target.

THERE'S MORE: Just in case this story couldn't get more sci-fi, some in the Defense Department think that unmanned planes are the best place to put these ray guns.

"High-power microwave [HPM weapons] on an aircraft is an engineering challenge, particularly when you have a person in it," says a senior Pentagon official. "It's a lot easier to shield electronics [needed to control the aircraft] than it is to shield a body. Also, the closer I can get to the target, the more precise I can be [with an energy beam], the less power I need and the wider range of effects I can achieve."

But take this all with a healthy spoonful of salt. So-called "directed energy" weapons have been just around the corner for decades.

Styrofoam First, Lightning Guns Later

The line between envy and admiration can be pretty thin, when you're a freelance writer. Take, for example, Defense Tech pal Sharon Weinberger's story in today's Washington Post Magazine.

stunbeam.jpgIt's genius: a heartfelt, quirky, subtly snarky profile of Pete Bitar, an Anderson, Indiana styrofoam recycling entrepreneur who's now marketing non-lethal lightning guns to the Pentagon. How, she asks, did a guy with no engineering background manage to get a million bucks from the Defense Department to develop a "StunStrike" weapon?

Great question -- one I wished I had asked at the Virginia "directed energy" conference where both Weinberger and I met Bitar for this first time. Anyway, go read her piece. I'll be finished kicking myself by the time you're done.

THERE'S MORE: Speaking of kicking myself, military thinkers have been telling me for months about their idea for bringing some order to Iraq. I never got around to writing about it. The New York Times' David Brooks just did.

You set up safe havens where you can establish good security. Because you don't have enough manpower to do this everywhere at once, you select a few key cities and take control. Then you slowly expand the size of your safe havens, like an oil spot spreading across the pavement.

Once you've secured a town or city, you throw in all the economic and political resources you have to make that place grow. The locals see the benefits of working with you. Your own troops and the folks back home watching on TV can see concrete signs of progress in these newly regenerated neighborhoods. You mix your troops in with indigenous security forces, and through intimate contact with the locals you begin to even out the intelligence advantage that otherwise goes to the insurgents.

AND MORE: Armchair Generalist has a good round-up of the "oil spot" buzz.

More Cash for Human Ray Gun Tests

The Pentagon is dead serious about getting its pain ray into the field soon -- serious enough to test the system out on people.

edge2.jpgDefense Industry Daily notes that "Conceptual MindWorks in San Antonio, TX received a $7 million cost-plus fixed-fee contract to provide for research support around emerging directed energy weapons... and their effects on humans."

Work will be conducted in cooperation with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Human Effectiveness Directorate... located in Brooks City-Base, TX. The scope of the proposed contract will focus on bioeffects research on directed energy and kinetic energy systems, to assist in transitioning DoD technologies from the lab to the front lines.

Using electro-magnetic waves that penetrate just a 64th of inch beneath the skin, the Defense Department's pain ray creates a burning sensation that tends to make people run the other way, fast.

Hundreds of people have been voluntarily zapped by the device, known as the Active Denial System, with a little, if any, lasting damage. But that testing was called into question last month, when New Scientist revealed that the trials weren't as realistic as they could have been.

The experimenters banned glasses and contact lenses to prevent possible eye damage to the subjects, and in the second and third tests removed any metallic objects such as coins and keys to stop hot spots being created on the skin. They also checked the volunteers' clothes for certain seams, buttons and zips which might also cause hot spots.... People playing rioters put up their hands when hit and were given a 15-second cooling-down period before being targeted again.

A prototype Humvee-mounted ADS system could be sent to Iraq by the end of the year. A modified Stryker armored personnel carrier, equipped with a low-power version of the pain ray, a laser dazzler, and a sonic blaster, isn't all that far behind, officials familir with the program say.

L.A. Cops' Super Sonic Blaster

Since the early part of last year, U.S. soldiers and marines have been experimenting with a series of sonic blasters in Iraq. The Long Range Acoustic Devices, or "LRADs," can broadcast messages hundreds of yards away -- or be ear-splittingly loud at close range. The New York Police Department also had the devices at the ready during the Republican National Convention, although it's unclear whether the LRADs were actually used or not.

LASD_sonic.jpgLast week, the L.A. Sheriff's Department tested out an acoustic transmitter that makes earlier models look like "childrens' toys" in comparison, LASD Commander Sid Heal, a world-renowned expert in non-lethal weaponry, tells Defense Tech.

On Thursday, August 4th, we put the magnetic acoustic device (I'm not sure it has a name yet, so this one will have to do for now) to the test on one of our ranges... Using a variety of sounds from human voice to music to sound effects (screams, shouts, gunfire, sirens, and the like), we succeeded in listening to the sounds from the transmitter located one statue mile in the distance!

Admittedly, this was a crude proof of concept test. But the device met and exceeded our expectations. There was nearly no distortion. In fact, at one statute mile, we clearly listened to a Frank Sinatra record and could understand the words, hear the intonations and pitch, and even the background music! Other sounds, especially those in the higher frequency ranges like sirens and screams, were easily detected even over the noise from the 5 Freeway a short distance away.

The edge of the energy path was clearly discernible and you could easily detect when you were standing in it and not, even at one mile. In fact, near the end of the test a wind gusting up to 20 knots blew across our line of sight and we had to adjust for the wind to remain in the energy path.

This device far exceeds anything I'm aware of. Others are childrens' toys compared with this thing. The developer tells us that there are other configurations they believe will allow it to take even more energy. They estimated we were using 15,000 watts, but with a different type of magnet they believe we they can easily exceed 100,000 watts without overheating.

Further, by rearranging the orientation of the magnetic speakers, they can increase or decrease the width of the lobe, as well as decrease the size, weight and power. The device we tested is "full range;" that is, it provided clear sound from about 50 Hz to about 20,000 Hz. But if we were going to use it just for human voice or a siren, or some other specific frequency range, they can also "tune it" to provide maximum effectiveness for a specific frequency range and reduce the size and power, while increasing the range.

We are currently scheduling a full-blown demonstration in September... We'll keep you in the loop and notify you of the particulars of the demo when we have them.

Sounds good, Sid. Uh, I think.

THERE'S MORE: "I saw LRADs in the Gulf," says Kevin, commenting at Ace of Spades HQ. "Basically, we hooked them to an iPod or similar mp3 player and sent out warnings in Arabic. Pretty slick. About the size of a stop sign, but only 6 inches. Definitely don't want to try hand-holding it though. One little sneeze and your buddy could be deaf."

Will DOD Recall Pain Ray?

pronger.jpg

Last year, Noah wrote about a Defense Department nonlethal "pain ray" called the Active Denial System (ADS).

Now, British magazine New Scientist reveals that investigators testing the system are insisting tons of safety precautions that "raise concerns about how safe [ADS] would be if used in real crowd-control situations":

The experimenters banned glasses and contact lenses to prevent possible eye damage to the subjects, and in the second and third tests removed any metallic objects such as coins and keys to stop hot spots being created on the skin. They also checked the volunteers' clothes for certain seams, buttons and zips which might also cause hot spots.

The ADS weapon's beam causes pain within 2 to 3 seconds and it becomes intolerable after less than 5 seconds. People's reflex responses to the pain is expected to force them to move out of the beam before their skin can be burnt.

But Neil Davison, co-ordinator of the non-lethal weapons research project at the University of Bradford in the UK, says controlling the amount of radiation received may not be that simple. "How do you ensure that the dose doesn't cross the threshold for permanent damage?" he asks. "What happens if someone in a crowd is unable, for whatever reason, to move away from the beam? Does the weapon cut out to prevent overexposure?"

During the experiments, people playing rioters put up their hands when hit and were given a 15-second cooling-down period before being targeted again. One person suffered a burn in a previous test when the beam was accidentally used on the wrong power setting.

So what's this got to do with the hockey picture? The real problem here is that people respond to very differently to varying levels of force.

When I was a lowly research drone at CSIS, I had the opportunity manage a project on nonlethal weapons. During one of our meetings, Dr. John Kenny -- a member of the DOD Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate's Human Effects Advisory Panel (HEAP) -- gave an amazing briefing on human variability that included these two examples to illustrate the challenge facing "nonlethal" weapons:

On May 9, 1998, police used twelve shots to kill former NFL player Tom Nevile. One day later, St. Louis Blues' captain Chris Pronger (above, right) collapsed after a hockey puck struck him in the chest during an NHL playoff game.

Kenny still believed the problem of human variability could be managed, but I don't know.

We started using the phrase "less lethal weapons" after his talk.

-- posted by Jeffrey Lewis.

Lab Defense: Pain Ray

We all know that security at the country's nuclear labs has been a little, um, uneven. Scientists at Sandia National Labs think they've found a way to plug up those porous defenses: a microwave-like pain that roasts intruders.

nonlethal-weaponry_nr.jpgFor years, the Air Force and the Pentagon's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate have been working on the Active Denial System, or ADS. It's a real-life ray gun which shoots 95 GHz millimeter waves. They penetrate a 64th of inch beneath the skin, where nerve receptors are concentrated. And when the waves hit, they produce an "intense heating sensation [which] stops only if the individual moves out of the beam’s path or the beam is turned off," a Sandia press release explains. "The sensation caused by the system has been described by test subjects as feeling like touching a hot frying pan."

It's a pretty damn persuasive way to get people to clear out of the way. And unlike, say, an M-16 fired into a mob, the beam's only lasting effects seem to be bad memories. No wonder folks are calling ADS "the Holy Grail of crowd control."

Raytheon has built a Humvee-mounted model, which is currently being tested before a likely trip to Iraq. The Air Force is developing an airborne version of the pain ray.

Now, Sandia researchers are getting in on the act, too. But unlike the military-grade units -- meant to zap masses of people far, far away -- the smaller Sandia model would be used to dissuade nearby individuals from sneaking into classified facilities. The researchers ran performance tests on a mini-ray prototype in late May. More "human effectiveness" trials will continue over the next six months.

If those work out, Sandia says, a "second-generation small-size ADS system [is] expected to be fielded at several DOE [Department of Energy] nuclear facilities as early as 2008."

Bomb-Spotting Laser Tested

laser_dude.gifBack in December, there was a bit of a ray gun party at Yuma Proving Grounds, apparently. While the Air Force put its new Scorpion bomb-zapping microwave blaster through its paces, the Army Research Lab successfully tried out a prototype bomb-spotter that relies on lasers to spot explosives, according to Inside Defense.

[The Lab is] calling the system "Standoff LIBS," using the acronym for laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy...

LIBS is a means of detecting traces of explosives on surfaces as far away as 30 meters, employing technology found in mining operations to determine the grade of ore.

As envisioned, here is how the military system could work: A laser is directed at a vehicle or other item that could have a bomb attached. Due to the heat created by the laser, the surface material then vaporizes. In the process, the material's molecules break down into their atoms, which "get excited in the high-temperature environment and light up as sharp lights in the spectrometer" -- the device used to read and analyze the reaction, ARL research physicist Andrzej Miziolek explained.

The wave length of the lights are then analyzed by a computer which matches the information against a library of known signatures...

For instance, a laser pointed at the door handle of a car could let the system detect if someone who has touched explosives has subsequently touched that door...

A typical application for the technology could be at a road checkpoint, where troops would be able to check cars for traces of explosives without the drivers' knowledge, a [military] official said.

"You don't want the adversary to know that you are checking him," the source said. "If you find explosives, you can go ahead and secure the situation."

Microwave Ray Gun Zaps Bombs

To the American military's growing menagerie of high-tech, bomb-battling oddities, add this little creature: a microwave ray gun, designed to wipe out Iraqi insurgents' explosives.

yuma_prove.jpgLast fall, engineers from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Alliant Techsystems put together the "Scorpion," a prototype microwave generator, for an exercise at the Yuma Proving Grounds. It was the "first-ever high-power microwave system that was built tough enough for transport," according to Defense Daily. And during that Yuma test -- meant to simulate conditions in Iraq -- the Scorpion "blew up... more than 75% of the improvised explosive devices it encountered in operationally realistic scenarios," AFRL spokesman Rich Garcia writes.

The Scorpion's development "was done under a cooperative research and development agreement that began mid-last year... and slated to run until June 1, 2006," he adds. "No money was involved in the CRADA. Rather, we shared expertise, information and facilities."

What's the next step for ray gun? There's no word, yet. But if the system continues to work the way it did at Yuma, there are a whole lot of soldiers right now that could use a Scorpion in Iraq.

Laser Weapon Firm Targeted

It ain't easy pinning down Ionatron Inc., the Tucson, Arizona laser weapon firm.

plasma_tank.jpgCompany execs say they're working on a real-life ray gun which uses femtosecond lasers – light pulses that last less than a ten-trillionth of a second – to carve conductive channels of ionized oxygen in the air. Through these channels, Ionatron's blaster supposedly sends man-made lighting bolts, frying anyone unfortunate enough to step into their path, up to 800 meters away.

The feds have given the company $12 million to chase these ray gun dreams. But good luck finding anyone in the Defense or Energy departments who will publicly endorse Ionatron's ray gun work. Or even say they're passingly familiar with it.

A couple of months ago, Ionatron gave me a couple of contacts in officialdom -- guys who are supposedly teaming up with the Tucson firm on laser projects. When I tracked these folks down, they said they really didn't know much about Ionatron at all.

Maybe Ionatron's research is so super-secret that nobody in government will acknowledge its existence. But if the work is so secret, why does Ionatron keep bragging about it to the media?

The company's latest press release shouts that Ionatron just been featured on the NBC Nightly News. In the statement, the company quotes Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Task Force as telling NBC, "The Ionatron system was just the type of out of the box, new technology solution we're looking for, quite honestly."

Now, I haven't seen the tape of the segment. But in the transcript, neither Gen. Votel nor the NBC reporter mentions Ionatron by name. Odd.

But there's one media outlet where Ionatron's name has been mentioned a whole lot, lately. That would be the New York Post, where business columnist Christopher Byron has been on a one-man jihad against the ray gun company. His most recent strike came last week, as he accused Senate Appropriations Committee chief Thad Cochran of steering millions in congressional discretionary funds Ionatron's way – in return for $9,000 in campaign contributions, and a promise to relocate to Cochran's home state of Mississippi.

"Inside the Beltway, it's business as usual," Byron says of the alleged tit-for-tat (the story is buried in the Post's pay-for-play archives). His other allegations go beyond the garden variety, however. Click here to read 'em.

On May 9, he claimed that "accumulating evidence now suggests that at least some of the technology that Ionatron claims to possess may actually belong either to Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co., which has been conducting its own government-funded 'directed energy' weapons research for years, or to a small California tech company rival called HSV Technologies, Inc., or perhaps to both."

A review of e-mails, nondisclosure agreements, board memos, letters and other similar documents, all supplied by officials at HSV Technologies, appear to support the assertion of HSV's president, Peter Schlesinger, that he and his board were hoodwinked by a Raytheon official named Joseph Hayden.

Specifically, Schlesinger claims that in early 2002 he was approached by Hayden with what purported to be an officially authorized partnership and licensing offer from Raytheon Co. - contingent, of course, on Raytheon first being permitted to review HSV's own directed energy research efforts.

Three separate meetings followed… at these meetings, Schlesinger says he and his colleagues provided the Raytheon people with an array of patented, confidential information regarding HSV's own directed energy development work.

Unfortunately, says Schlesinger, at the third and final meeting of the two groups, which took place on May 31, 2002, at a Raytheon missile defense facility in San Diego, Calif., the HSV officials discovered that Hayden had apparently been secretly passing their information along to an outsider… [Ionatron founder Robert] Howard.

Hayden, by the way, is now one of Howard's employees at Ionatron.

But a sneaky approach to intellectual property isn't Byron's only beef with Howard. The Post columnist calls the Iontration founder "a twice-fined Wall Street stock promoter… who agreed to pay $2.9 million in penalties in 1997 in settlement of a Securities and Exchange Commission suit charging him with making false and misleading statements about another company he founded and controlled, called Presstek, Inc."

That's one of the reasons, no doubt, that Byron has been so suspicious of Ionatron's rises and dips on the penny stock market. As he noted on April 25:

Shares in a high-flying penny stock called Ionatron Inc. had been climbing for months… [when] suddenly, on March 18, with Ionatron's shares having climbed to a high of $10.41, the company's stock was hit with an avalanche of insider selling, as more than 50 Wall Streeters privy to Ionatron's innermost secrets bailed out of nearly every share of stock they held, knocking more than 30 percent off the price in the days that followed.

Another cautionary tale from the pump-and-dump annals of the penny stock market? In fact, it's a lot more than that, for… nearly every one of the more than four dozen insiders who dumped their Ionatron shares on March 18 have now been identified by The Post as employees of a secretive, Arlington, Va., investment group that is owned, operated and financed out of the black box budget of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Byron's talking about In-Q-Tel, the non-profit investment arm of the CIA that put money into Ionatron when the company was young. In-Q-Tel officials heatedly denied that the firm was involved in any "pump-and-dump" schemes. And I'm inclined to agree. In-Q-Tel isn't like other venture capital firms. It's more like an incubator for spook-friendly technologies. Getting a big financial return on investment doesn't seem to be a big motivation. And if making money isn't that important, why bother with insider trading?

What seems more plausible is that In-Q-Tel's employees, officially separated from their employer, may have been less scrupulous -- in Byron's words, "stag[ing] an end-run around In-Q-Tel's not-for-profit legal status [to] benefit personally from the fund's investments."

They accomplished this by buying shares for themselves in a separate and parallel "for profit" entity called the "In-Q-Tel Employees Fund LLC."

Using the cash contributions from the employees, the LLC thereupon took equity stakes on their behalf simultaneously in each of the three companies in which the not-for-profit fund was itself buying shares - an arrangement almost identical to the so-called "Raptor" partnerships through which top officials at Enron Corp were able to cash in personally on investment activities of the very company that employed them.

Byron only offers circumstantial evidence to support his claim; there's no Enron-esque trail of damaging e-mails that he's uncovered. Nevertheless, Ionatron officials wouldn't comment on this – or any of the allegations that Byron has leveled.

THERE'S MORE: In-Q-Tel spokesperson Gayle von Eckartsberg says Byron’s allegations about the 85-person employee (and ex-employee) investment fund "are also false."

Employees have no control over the selection of the investments, nor over the timing of the distribution of the equity or proceeds from the Fund... Participation by all employees is mandatory... Employees do not control how much equity is purchased, or when, nor can they opt out of participation in the Fund or in any of its investments. In other words, employees cannot “cherry pick.”

Besides, the few-million dollar kitty isn't making anybody rich, von Eckartsberg notes. The largest share, about six percent, goes to In-Q-Tel CEO Gilman Louie. And he donates it all to charity.

But the cash is needed, she says, to "attract the talent we need to do our job." Getting venture capitalists to do non-profit work isn't easy. They need some incentive that there will be some kind of payoff down the road. But so far, that hadn't happened, von Eckartsberg observes. "To date, employees have put in more than they have received from the Fund."

LIQUID LASERS HEATING UP

It's not easy building a laser weapon. And the hardest part might be keeping the ray gun cool.

jsf_lmco.jpgTake the Airborne laser, for example. The blaster-carrying, modified 747 – scheduled for test flights later this decade – has a powerful chemical laser cannon that heats up to 540 degrees celsius when fired. Each few-second blast needs to be followed by minutes of cool-down time. 8,000 gallons of hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals has to be flushed out and chilled to prepare for the next blast.

Next-generation, solid state lasers aren't much easier to handle. True, there are no chemical vats. But the gases, liquids, and mists required to keep these ray guns cool are plenty bulky. And they, too, need to be swept out before the laser can fire again. It's one of many reasons why lasers are being planned for big, clunky planes like the 747 – and not for fighter jets.

For years, Darpa, the Pentagon's way-out research arm, has been bankrolling a project to cool a high-energy laser with a liquid that has the same angle of refraction as the mirrors inside the blaster. That way, the ray gun can fire away, even while it's being cooled. The weapon should take up a whole lot less room. And that could pave the way to putting a blaster "on a ground vehicle, a helicopter, a jet," according to Charles Manor, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, which was recently named the weapon system integrator for this High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) project.

The San Francisco Chronicle notes that General Atomics – maker of the Predator drone – will build HELLADS' laser, "while Lockheed… will develop the system's ability to pinpoint and track a target."

The goal is to have, by 2009, a powerful blaster that's be "an order of magnitude" lighter than comparable lasers – five kilograms for every kilowatt of energy produced.

The HELLADS project is "currently in the third of five phases," General Atomics says.

The current phase consists of developing the technology necessary to demonstrate a subscale [15 kw] prototype laser system in the laboratory. This subscale demonstrator shall be constructed in the same geometry and operate with a fluence comparable to that of the final weapon system.

As currently envisioned, the fourth phase shall consist of a ground-based laser weapon system demonstrator with an approximate average power of 150 kW. The laser weapon system demonstrator constructed in this phase shall employ a design and materials which demonstrate the ability of the final weapon to achieve low specific weight (5 kg/kW) and a compact geometry suitable for deployment on tactical systems [like a Humvee or a fighter plane].

The final phase consists of the engineering, fabrication, integration and demonstration of a complete HELLADS weapon system on a tactical platform.

ucav_laser.jpgThat platform might even be robotic, Darpa chief Tony Tether told Congress back in 2003.

With HELLADS, the next-generation Predator B or the heavily-armed Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle "could protect fixed installations or population centers from attack, patrol a border, or patrol a demilitarized zone with the capability to react to hostile actions and engage tactical missiles, rockets, or artillery at the speed of light." Darpa wants to spend $60 million over the next three years on the system.

RAY GUN TWO STEP: LASERS TO IRAQ?

Maybe -- just maybe -- the U.S. is going to get laser weapons in Iraq, after all. Last week, Reuters reported that the Army had "balked" at deploying Northrop Grumman's Tactical High Energy Laser air defense system. But a Defense Tech informant, pointing to this MIT Technology Review article, says Reuters may have blown the story.
thel.jpg

The Pentagon hasn't announced its decision on deployment of the prototype laser, [so] it can't be said that it "balked"... Lt. Col. [Jeff] Souder, [who manages directed energy projects at the Army's Redstone Arsenal] said "We're exploring our options in how to put chemical lasers in the hands of our soldiers as soon as possible."

Another reason I think [THEL deployment] is a real possibility is that [Brig.Gen. John] Urias just arrived in Baghdad and is in control of acquisitions for the operations in Iraq. He oversaw the MTHEL [mobile THEL] program from Washington for several years and was the one who pushed it towards solid state lasers [as opposed to chemically-powered lasers like THEL, which generate more power but require giant vats of toxic materials to operate -- ed]. He also has said recently that he thinks they moved towards solid state too soon...

Another wrinkle in this premise is that I know several high-ranking
MTHEL officials, including Souder and Aden, were in Israel all last week.
[THEL has co-developed with the Israelis, and THEL's radar system has already been put to use in Israel -- ed.] I think that means they might have been discussing putting the prototype in Sderot in time for the disengagement. Or it might mean that they are considering the $25 million quarter-scale "relocatable" THEL for future disengagements. A big caveat should go here -- I imagine that there are several Pentagon people who don't want to see the laser go to Israel, with its proclivities for sharing technology with the Chinese. The radar was one thing -- it was an Israeli radar built for the prototype. But giving the laser to Israel seems like a huge leap for the Pentagon to take, considering all the foul-ups in our defense relationship with them recently.

Sam Jaffe, who wrote the Technology Review story, adds, "I'm convinced that before the end of this year we'll see a historic first: a laser shooting down a hostile projectile in a real combat zone."

RAY GUN FUTURE MELTING?

Earlier this year, at a DC conference on laser weapons, Brigadier General Philip Coker, with the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, told the assembled scientists and defense contractors that they were on a 12-month deadline.

ACF9C35.jpgYou guys have been tinkering around with lasers for decades, he said, without a whole lot of funding or a whole lot of success. But if you come up with a ray gun that can protect American troops in Iraq from mortar attacks within the next year, "I will buy it." And then, the money will rush for all sorts of so-called "directed energy" weapons.

But it looks like that deadline won't be hit. Because "U.S. Army officials so far have balked at deploying an experimental laser weapon" that's the most promising candidate for fulfilling Coker's needs, Reuters says.

"We've talked to them about it," said Art Stephenson, a vice president at Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the Tactical High-Energy Laser, or THEL.

THEL, a short-range air defense system made up of several components, is the laser weapon closest to possible use in the field. It ties an advanced radar that detects and tracks incoming rockets to a chemically-generated high-power beam that destroys them. The system's development was jointly funded by the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Army officers had lots of questions about logistics and safety, Stephenson told reporters...

"And there are answers to all those questions that alleviate those concerns," he said. "It's up to the military to decide how they want to use this capability."

Army officials involved in the matter would not be available for comment until Thursday, said Nancy Ray, an Army spokeswoman.

In tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, THEL has destroyed 46 targets in flight, including mortar rounds fired singly and in salvos, artillery shells and rockets, Northrop officials said. A target is zapped by the real-life equivalent of a Star Trek-like beam of light. The highly focused beam, generated by a mix of hydrogen fluoride and deuterium fluoride, focuses enough energy to heat the target until it explodes in mid-air.

Stephenson, vice president of Northrop's new "Directed Energy Systems" business area, said the Army pulled the plug late last year on plans to develop a mobile version of THEL on the grounds it would be too bulky.

Since then, Los Angeles-based Northrop has designed a second-generation, "relocatable" system that's about one-quarter the size of the one now at White Sands, New Mexico, with the same capability, he said.

The "relocatable" system could be deployed within two years at about $25 million apiece from the 30th unit if the Army were to buy that many of them, he said.

So far, that's not in the cards.

EMP SCAREMONGERS FIZZLE

It sounds scary – like comic book super-villain scary – at first, this idea that Iran is plotting to hit American with a king-sized electromagnetic pulse, triggered by a nuke in the skies. Luckily, it's a scenario about as realistic as the X-Men.

ebomb.gif For years, a group of right-wing defense policy makers have been warning about the dangers of an EMP assault. Their "latest evidence," according to Internet tinhat-factory World NetDaily: a Tehran "military journal" article that "publicly considered the idea of launching an electromagnetic pulse attack as the key to defeating the world's lone superpower."

Aha! Exclaimed Peter Pry, with Congress' Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack. "We cannot rule out that Iran, the world's leading sponsor of international terrorism might provide terrorists with the means to executive an EMP attack against the United States."

Maybe so. I mean, what can be categorically ruled out these days? Oh, there is one thing we can say for sure, Bouphonia observes: That "journal" article doesn't prove a damn thing.

First and foremost, [the journal article] contains no discussion of an EMP attack against the United States.

For that matter, it contains no discussion of an EMP attack against anyone.

In fact, it contains no mention of nuclear weapons whatsoever.

Yes, friends, you heard me correctly. This eight-year-old article, which a gaggle of "defense experts" is currently presenting as evidence for Iran's intention to launch an EMP attack using nuclear weapons, does not discuss the use of nuclear weapons, and does not discuss EMP attacks. Not once.

Curses! Foiled again!

LASER RELAYS FLASHING BACK?

Walking through my old neighborhood yesterday, I noticed a girl, maybe 17, wearing a little painter's cap, the brim flipped up and cocked slightly to one side. It was a look I hadn't seen since I was 17, myself. And I never dreamed that it would come back to Manhattan, even as aren't-we-ironic kitsch.

laser_mirror.jpgI mention this because, just like in fashion, defense technologies have a way of cycling back into style – no matter how silly they might seem the first time around. Boeing is hoping that it's found one of those retro-chic systems, Aviation Week reports: an "elaborate relay mirror prototype to extend the range of laser weapons."

It's an idea that first gained currency in the 80's, during Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" anti-missile frenzy, and then died down, after controlling the beams proved too difficult.

There have been experiments, off-and-on, ever since. But Boeing would like to lead a full-scale revival the laser-directing mirrors, maybe as part of its Airborne Laser (ABL) project – the modified 747 that's being designed for the Air Force to zap missiles in mid-air. Right, now the ABL has a planned range of about 200 km. By bouncing the ABL's beams off of high-flying blimps or satellites, those rays could reach much, much further.

"If you can get it out of the atmosphere, light goes a long way," the Air Force's Dr. Billy Mullins told a Washington conference earlier this year, "you can extend out to hundreds and hundreds of kilometers… You can strike deep into enemy territory at the speed of light."

Missiles wouldn't be the only target. "The relay mirrors could also be used in conjunction with the Advanced Tactical Laser," says Aviation Week. That's the AC-130 gunship, modified to carry a chemical oxygen iodine laser, which special forces hope to use to take out enemy vehicles – and the enemies themselves, if need be.

For years, the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation has been pushing the idea of a "magic," world-wide ring of laser-directing mirrors. The beams could be used to relay communications, supply energy to solar-electric devices, or, y'know, put smoking holes in the less-than-cooperative.

Getting this long-distance roasting to work in the real world is going to be extremely tough, Aviation Week notes.

Later this year, Boeing plans to hoist a mirror onto a crane at Kirtland AFB, N.M., to simulate the relay capability of an airborne platform...

Among [the] challenges is proving the integrity of the high-tech coatings on the mirror system; they must withstand and reflect an enormous amount of heat to redirect the laser's energy. Furthermore, Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of Boeing's ABL program, says the integrity of the pointing and tracking systems is critical to avoid jitter that could misguide the laser.
Weather and dust [also] pose problems for the system, as with any laser program.

"It certainly won't be an all-weather system," Fancher says. "Heavy cloud cover will impair its operation. But, that's true of any weapon system. It will have environmental limitations on its range of operations."

Funny. I bet they said the same sorts of things the first time around, too.

D.I.Y. DEATH RAY

New, from the maker of the internationally-renowned "Girlfriend Quest" PC game, comes a six-foot tall set of mirrors, designed to reflect the sun's light -- and roast whatever comes in its way.

link_SDR7.gifThe Solar Death Ray captures sunlight in 112 mirrors, each 3.5 inches square, and then spits it back onto a single spot five feet, six inches away.

"I estimate that the Solar Death Ray can heat things up to between 500-600 degrees Celsius (930-1100 degrees Fahrenheit) under good conditions," its maker says.

Mr. SDR swears he won't turn his homemade weapon on living things. "I’m not going to burn puppies or goldfish or anything like that." But chocolate bunnies, Hootie and the Blowfish tapes, and "my pants" -- all of them have already been reduced to protoplasmic goo with by the Death Ray's awesome might.

LASER HUMMER IN IRAQ

The Army’s first and only battlefield laser system is back.

zeus.jpgIn 2003, the Army sent ZEUS, a Humvee armed with a 10kw solid-state laser, to Afghanistan, to blast mines and other explosives left over from years of war. In the six months ZEUS spent there, the laser-hummer zapped over 200 pieces of unexploded ordnance, according to the Army, "at one point setting a record for ordnance disposal by negating 51 pieces in less than 100 minutes."

Now, ZEUS "is being forward deployed" again, Army Space and Missile Defense Command Lt. Gen. Larry Dodgen tells Defense Daily.

"According to spokesman at Headquarters, Department of the Army, ZEUS is in Iraq as part of a three-vehicle convoy protection concept being evaluated now," DD adds.

ZEUS uses a pair of lasers to sizzle its targets, according to Sparta, Inc., the vehicle's maker. A joystick-controlled green Nd:YAG laser is used to designate the target. One it's locked, an invisible high-power Nd:YAG laser swerves around, to heat the sucker up.

The system uses diesel fuel to create the laser beam, which focuses energy on the outer casing of the target, which heats up until it detonates, [triggering] a less violent explosion than if the explosive was activated, causing less damage to the surrounding area...

“Its power level and utility is new and is not for aerial targets, it’s for unexploded ordnance,” Dodgen said. “It is a system that works, and we certainly would like to use it whenever possible.”

LASER 747: COOL YOUR JETS

For those of you fired up about the idea of a laser-blasting 747, a word of advice: relax.

Sure, the Airborne Laser, or ABL, managed late last year to achieve "first light" – turn on its ray gun. But it's going to be a long time before that laser is loaded onto the plane, and the thing starts flying.

turret_nose.jpgABL, long criticized for busting budgets and cracking deadlines, was supposed to start zapping missiles in 2002. Then it was pushed back to 2005.

This week, at a Washington conference on laser weapons, the Missile Defense Agency's Lt. Gus Valez wouldn't even hazard a guess as to when those tests might begin.

In the coming year, Lt. Valez said, the Agency would fly the plane, with its beam control and fire control equipment loaded aboard, but turned off – to see if the stuff could handle the stress. Then would come test flights with the gear switched on. During this time, on the ground, the laser weapon would continue to have the bugs shaken out of it. Only after all these tasks were completed, Lt. Valez noted, would the arduous process of integrating the laser into the 747 begin.

As Lt. Valez spoke, a PowerPoint slide over his right shoulder gave a timeline, with a first ABL in-air blast coming sometime between 2006 and 2009. But when asked to confirm that schedule, he demurred.

"We're not predicting a date right now," Lt. Valez answered.

LASER WARNINGS FOR PILOTS

"A day after the Department of Transportation urged pilots to report hazardous laser beams aimed at aircraft," the Washington Post reports, "the U.S. military said it is testing a system to beam red and green lasers at aircraft in the Washington area as a warning when they enter restricted airspace."

PILOTS BEWARE? SUPER DAZZLER MAY BE IN SIGHT

So nobody has downed an airplane with a blinding laser beam, yet. But the task could get a little easier, if research at the University of New Hampshire pans out.

For decades, the world's militaries have been developing laser "dazzlers" -- bright pulses of coherent light, meant to render someone sightless, temporarily. The Chinese (and, maybe, the North Koreans) have working models. And while U.S. research has dampened, ever since the Clinton administration signed an international protocol banning the blinding weapons, work on the devices never stopped completely.

boss.jpgIn recent years, the Air Force Research Laboratory put together a pair of laser spotlights that "tended to dazzle" people in their path, according to lab spokesman Rich Garcia. "It was like they were looking into the headlights of a car late at night." But the dazzlers were either too strong – running the risk of permanent eye damage, at some distances -- or they were "put into mothballs" after being outpaced by newer technology.

The Air Force remains interested in dazzlers, Garcia says. But the problem (from a military point of view) is that the devices, as currently configured, are pretty easy to stop. Special goggles can filter out the laser light. New-fangled anti-laser contact lenses might even be able to do the trick, as well.

A group of scientists at the University of New Hampshire may have found a way to get around the specs and the contacts, however. With money from the Defense Department-backed Non-lethal Technology Innovation Center (NTIC), they've developed a laser than can sense the defenses, and adapt to overcome them.

The machine sends out an inital laser pulse, to look for where a lens is, and how much it's being shielded. The reflected glint from the lens gives away both its position and its level of protection. The device then changes the power and direction of its second blast, so that the lens is overwhelmed.

dazzler_lab.jpg"It someone puts on sunglasses on, it measures the reflection," says NTIC director Glenn Shwaery, "and then it gives off a brighter flash, to compensate."

But, Shwaery wants to make clear, "this has nothing to do with shining lasers into cockpits... It's not the intent of this project whatsoever."

Instead, the idea is for police to use the dazzler, now in an early lab prototype, to disorient a perp, or for a military flier to disrupt the mechanical lens on an incoming missile's tracking system.

Besides, to zap a jet or a helicopter, you "don't need anything that complicated," Shwaery observes. Kids having been using off-the-shelf laser pointers for years to wig pilots out.

Not that Shwaery wouldn't be interested in something that could take down a plane. In an (as yet unfunded) request for proposal, NTIC asks for ideas on "NL [non-lethal] disruption of aircraft. Investigate techniques to non-destructively force the aircraft to land or render it ineffectual as an asset when on the ground. Techniques shall not cause the catastrophic failure of aircraft in flight."

THERE'S MORE: Over at Salon, Patrick Smith tries to put to bed -- once and for all -- the tin-hat notion that the recent round of cockpit illuminations is somehow a terrorist plot.

To accept the proposition that terrorists are behind these events is to assume that gangs of al-Qaida operatives are hunkered down in neighborhoods throughout America, openly risking capture in their attempts to test out obvious, traceable devices that even when used accurately are exceptionally unlikely to bring forth an accident. I submit that terrorists do not undertake operations with such high probabilities of exposure and failure. They have little to gain and everything to lose. With respect to bang for the buck, why waste time with lasers when you could hide in a patch of trees with an assault rifle and inflict greater damage?

AND MORE: "Geeks, kids and copycats armed with a new type of laser pointer appear to be behind increasing reports of laser beams pointed at commercial aircraft," according to MSNBC.

Experts - from the FBI to those in the laser industry - believe the most recent incidents do not stem from illicit use of powerful military laser weapons or the less powerful lasers used by the entertainment industry, both of which require high power supplies and bulky cooling mediums.

Rather, they think the mischief is being caused by laser pointers that project a green beam of light that have recently been imported from China and Russia. They are increasingly available on the Internet.

The hand-held lasers, powered by batteries, project a green beam that can be 50 times brighter than the more common red-beam pointers and can travel 8,000 to 10,000 feet into the sky.

Although the federal Food and Drug Administration limits the power of laser pointers, there are several Web sites and electronic bulletin boards that explain how laser enthusiasts can easily double the power of the green lasers, which sell for as little as $50 and as much as $600. One company boasts it can increase the power of its green pointer so the beam of light can travel 25,000 feet into the sky.

Enthusiasts visiting one Web bulletin board said they use the laser pointers to identify stars, create simple holographs and even burn holes into plastic cups. One participant said he used his laser pointer to help his family spot a UFO.

AND MORE: The genius who lased a couple of planes over Jersey has finally been arrested.

PAIN RAYS, LASER JETS, AND STUN GUN SHOCKERS

From pain beams to stun guns to laser jets, real-life ray guns seemed to blasting their way from the world of sci-fi into the realm of reality in 2004. There were setbacks, to be sure -- missed deadlines, bloated budgets, and a sense that supposedly "non-lethal" energy weapons might not be so safe, after all. But, by the end of the year, the dream of a blaster in hand seemed a whole lot nearer than it did in 2003.

abl_small.JPGLASER JET: GOOD NEWS
After decades of bloated promises, busted budgets, and missed deadlines, the troubled Airborne Laser project finally got a bit of good news yesterday.

The program's goal is to mount a high-energy, chemical laser onto a 747 jet, so it can shoot down incoming missiles. But whether such a laser would ever work remained very much an open question. On Thursday, some answers emerged, when Northrop engineers successfully tested the laser.

ANTI-LASER CONTACT LENSES
I think we all winced when we read, back in September, about the Delta pilot who was hit in the eye by a laser while flying a 737. Or about the 20 year-old Los Alamos intern who was zapped during a July experiment.

Air Force researchers must not have liked what they read, either. That's presumably why they're looking to develop a contact lens that can protect against laser blasts.

LASERS 1, MORTARS 0
Lasers have been getting pretty good at knocking down rockets, as we've seen in tests over the last few years. Now, the ray guns are starting to prove that they can zap one of the most common battlefield threats – mortars – as well.

ARMY FOCUSING ON "EASY" LASER WEAPONS
In the world of laser guns and death rays, there's hard to pull off. And then's really, really hard to do. The Army has decided to concentrate on developing some of the easier "directed energy" weapons. The idea is to prove to a skeptical military community that lasers can, in fact, be used to blow stuff up -- and not just on Babylon 5.

RAY GUN RESEARCH POWERS UP
The most powerful lasers today probably wouldn't work that well as weapons. They have the energy needed to zap oncoming missiles. But, powered by enormous vats of chemicals, they're really too cumbersome to work in the battlefield.

Solid state lasers don't have those logistical problems. Until recently, though, the energy they've generated has been pretty puny – just 10 kilowatts or so, instead of the 100 kilowatts that most think are needed to make a workable weapon. Now, Aviation Week reports, the Defense Department is on track to demonstrate three, solid state laser designs that can hit the 25 kw mark.

taser_side_mirror_small.JPGDEATHS DOG STUN GUN MAKER
For executives as Taser International, this should be the best day, ever. The company just signed a $1.8 million deal with the Pentagon – the largest in Taser's history. But the stun-gun maker can't shake allegations that their supposedly "non-lethal" weapons have killed more than a few of their targets.

CORONER: TASERS DIDN'T KILL
They're still not sure why 31 year-old Frederick Jerome Williams died in police custody. But it wasn't the five shocks to the chest from a Taser stun gun, the Gwinnett, Georgia County medical examiner's office has concluded.

TASERS IN THE SKIES
Firing bullets in an enclosed space is rarely a good idea. So I guess it was only a matter of time before someone decided to arm airline security guards with tasers instead.

NEXT-GEN STUN GUNS TARGET CROWDS
The problem with today's stun guns is that you can unload a can of electrical whoop-ass only on one person at a time. But that may be starting to change.

SONIC WEAPON IN IRAQ
U.S. soldiers in Iraq have new gear for dispersing hostile crowds and warding off potential enemy combatants. It blasts earsplitting noise in a directed beam. "

"E-BOMB," FOR REAL?
On the eve of the Iraq invasion, it was being hailed as America's next "wonder weapon." The "e-bomb" -- a munition using high-powered microwaves to fry circuits and computers -- was about to be dropped on Baghdad, we were told. Now, Aviation Week reports, there are a pair of efforts underway at the Pentagon to use high-powered microwaves -- the core of the e-bomb -- for real.

v-ads.jpgBRING THE PAIN
When U.S. soldiers are faced with a hostile crowd, they only have, broadly speaking, two options for breaking it up: the bullhorn or the machine gun. Words or bullets. Deadly force, or no force at all. What's need instead is a weapon that falls somewhere in between. That shoots to hurt, not to kill. That drives away looters, without driving up casualty counts. A microwave-like pain ray, let's say.

SOUPED-UP ARMORED CARS PREPPED FOR IRAQ
Soldiers in Iraq might soon get armored vehicles equipped with pain rays, sonic weapons, or guns that automically return fire – if a Pentagon project works out as planned.

PAIN RAY GOING AIRBORNE
It was only a matter of time, I guess. First, the Air Force builds a real-life, microwave-like pain ray. Then, it gets a company to strap that real-life, microwave-like pain ray to the back of a jet.

NO SCI-FI TECH FOR "FUTURE COMBAT"
Back in 1999, when the Army launched Future Combat Systems, its $117 billion modernization program, "discussions were dominated by visions of an all-electric, laser-firing fleet of fast-moving tank-like vehicles unburdened by the weight of conventional armor," notes National Defense. "Five years later, reality has set in."

INDUSTRY BIGS TEAM UP ON RAY GUNS

thel.jpgTwo of the heavyweights of the defense industry are teaming up to develop "a laser armed combat vehicle," Baltimore Business Journal says.

Northrop Grumman, which is building the Army's Tactical High Energy Laser, will put together the ray gun. United Defense, maker of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, "will develop a hybrid [gas/electric] combat vehicle that would carry the laser weapon," according to the Journal.

There's no contract with the Pentagon, yet, for such a weapon. But the partnership represents the rapid evolution of laser technology, company execs note. The Tactical High Energy Laser has had a number of successful tests, shooting down incoming rockets. The modified 747 Airborne Laser, after a seemingly-endless slumber, is beginning to make progress.

More importantly, electric-powered lasers are finally starting to build up the power they need to work as weapons. In a few months, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore national lab and elsewhere plan to test a 25 kilowatt solid-state laser. If those trials work out as expected, the Defense Department will then start handing out grants for a laser with a hundred kilowatts of power -- that's widely-considered the threshold for ray gun action to begin.

"Operational demonstrations and systems will become reality in the near future," Patrick Caruana, vice president of Space and Missile Defense for Northrop Grumman Space Technology, said in a press release.

The vehicle is meant to fight off mortars, drones, and other threats from the air. To prove to the Pentagon that the machine is worth funding, "Northrop Grumman and United Defense are pursuing ground vehicle-based laser system demonstrations that will prove the effectiveness and utility of high-energy lasers against threats and will provide critical packaging and integration activities that will demonstrate the operational usefulness of these systems."

THERE'S MORE: One step forward, one step back. The Airborne Laser's first flight test in two years was cut short this week, after some "anomalous instrumentation readings." Space News says a cabin pressure problem was to blame.

ANTI-LASER CONTACT LENSES

eyeball.jpgI think we all winced when we read, back in September, about the Delta pilot who was hit in the eye by a laser while flying a 737. Or about the 20 year-old Los Alamos intern who was zapped during a July experiment.

Air Force researchers must not have liked what they read, either. That's presumably why they're looking to develop a contact lens that can protect against laser blasts (scroll down to find it).

Lasers are becoming more and more common on the battlefield. Range finders, smart bomb guidance packages, and airplane protection systems all use the rays. And while the Air Force has been working hard to put together eyewear that'll keep the lasers at bay, it's been hard to integrate the things with "protective equipment (helmets, goggles, and chem/bio gear), life support equipment (visors and oxygen masks), and avionics (head/helmet mounted displays and night vision goggles)." Corrective glasses only make the problem worse.

Anti-laser contact lenses might solve many of the problems, though. And they'd cover the eye better than glasses or goggles.

The contact lens sits on the eye, the entire cornea and pupil are covered, so there is no chance of a reflection, or high angle incident beam, sneaking behind the LEP [Laser Eye Protection]. Therefore, coupled with the appropriate laser protection technology, contact lenses provide a perfectly sized defense against eye injury, eliminating direct and off-axis retinal hazards from today’s most dangerous military lasers that operate in the far red and near infrared spectrum (670 nm – 1200 nm).

LASER JET PAYOFF

abl_refuel.jpgA few days ago, we found out that the Airborne Laser -- that's the modified 747, designed to zap incoming missiles -- successfully tested its ray gun for the first time. Well, it seems that good fortune comes with a price. Because the Missile Defense Agency has just added $1.47 billion to the program," the jet's program manager tells Inside Missile Defense.

That means the price of the project just doubled, instantly. And there could be more to come. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) officials are only about "80 percent" sure that this new windfall will cover the cost of the Airborne Laser (ABL) tests they want to run.

Originally, the ABL was supposed to be blasting by 2002. Now, the MDA isn't committing to a timetable. But they do have three goals in mind: keep testing the 747's laser, finish the plane's "battle management system," and shore up the ABL's "beam control system, which is really critical to our ability to be able to point and track the high-energy laser."

While the laser is being tested on the ground, the aircraft will begin a series of flight tests -- fewer than 20 in total -- carrying the beam control and the battle management system. “Initially, with the beam control system we will just test what we call the ‘passive pieces,’ which is without the two solid state lasers we use to track the missile,” ABL Program Manager Air Force Col. Ellen Pawlikowski said. “We will check that out, we will do some tests to make sure we get good handoff between battle management and beam control. Then we will bring the plane back down for a short period and we will put two illuminating lasers on [the aircraft] in the second half of 2005.”

When the laser finishes all of its ground tests, program officials will move it out of the systems integration lab and begin putting it on the ABL aircraft, Pawlikowski said. “We will do that as the next step after we finish the flight tests and the ground tests and then we will have our final test period when we test the complete system first against target boards and then against a boosting missile.”

Program officials will take a measured approach as they finish each major phase, such as the completion of the first light test, according to Pawlikowski. “We will do two things when we reach a major milestone,” she said. “We will look at what our schedule is and what does the budget look like for the rest of that path. I am not going to tell you today that we are going to complete such-and-such by 2006 because I am going to look at that in January, when we finish these two milestones, and then I am going to look at it again. And we are going to take it one step at a time."

GOOD NEWS FOR LASER JET

abl_small.JPGAfter decades of bloated promises, busted budgets, and missed deadlines, the troubled Airborne Laser project finally got a bit of good news yesterday.

The program's goal is to mount a high-energy, chemical laser onto a 747 jet, so it can shoot down incoming missiles. But whether such a laser would ever work remained very much an open question. On Thursday, some answers emerged, when "Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers working in secrecy at Edwards Air Force Base successfully tested" the laser, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Although the laser test barely lasted a second, it marked the first time that [this] chemical laser had created a beam of light. Over the next few months, engineers hope to increase the duration and energy of the laser's beam so it could shoot down a ballistic missile from more than 200 miles away...

"The important thing is we got the photons, which proves the laser works," said Ken Englade of the agency's Airborne Laser program. "It came at a very good time, because people were saying it wasn't going to work."

"This is the best news they've had in a very long time," said Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon chief for testing and a critic of missile defense systems. "They still have a long way to go, but this is a big milestone."

U.S. military officials have been trying to develop a laser powerful enough to shoot down a missile from a long distance but compact enough to fit in an aircraft. Until this week, laser beams capable of destroying objects from a distance could be generated only using chambers that would fill a 15-story building.

The laser beam generated Wednesday came from a mixture of chemicals encased in modules about the size of six Chevy Suburbans, installed in the fuselage of a 747.

After further ground tests of this chemical oxygen-iodine laser, it will be reinstalled in a 747 jet that has been modified with a laser-firing turret.

The Airborne Laser is one of several Pentagon ray gun efforts moving ahead. In December, the Joint High Power Solid State Laser program "is slated to conduct laboratory demonstrations" of three electrically-driven, 25-kilowatt solid-state lasers, Aerospace Daily notes. By 2008, the Army hopes to start testing the "Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser, designed to destroy artillery shells, mortars, rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles."

"E-BOMB," FOR REAL?

ebomb.gifOn the eve of the Iraq invasion, it was being hailed as America's next "wonder weapon." The "e-bomb" -- a munition using high-powered microwaves to fry circuits and computers -- was about to be dropped on Baghdad, we were told. And the press could hardly keep from quivering at the thought of the big, electromagnetic strike, which would sizzle everything from anti-aircraft radars to Iraqi phone systems. But then... well, what happened next is unclear. Some say a prototype e-bomb was used to knock out Saddam's broadcast facilities. Others aren't so sure.

Now, Aviation Week reports, there are a pair of efforts underway at the Pentagon to use high-powered microwaves -- the core of the e-bomb -- for real.

The German manufacturer Diehl is "supplying U.S. forces in Iraq with 10 'prototype' HPM [high-powered microwave] devices in trials, where they will be used for convoy protection, according to a company source. They will be employed to jam detonation commands for improvised explosive devices."

Meanwhile, the American military is looking at a British program to pack cruise missiles with HPM warheads. American tests of the project -- code-named Virus -- "will likely be carried out at [Naval Air System Command's] China Lake, Calif. range against a target set of foreign systems, including radars and weaponry."

The Pentagon won't immediately make a purchase based on the tests, Aviation Week says. But it could "trigger a process resulting in a purchase." The Defense Department is also looking to load HPMs onto other weapons, including the satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, used so often in the early days of the Iraq war.

LASER ZAPS PILOT'S EYE

"A pilot flying a Delta Air Lines jet was injured by a laser that illuminated the cockpit of the aircraft as it approached Salt Lake City International Airport last week," according to the Washington Times.

The plane's two pilots reported that the Boeing 737 had been five miles from the airport when they saw a laser beam inside the cockpit, said officials familiar with government reports of the Sept. 22 incident. The flight, which originated in Dallas, landed without further incident at about 9:30 p.m. local time.

A short while later, however, the first officer felt a stinging sensation in one eye. A doctor who examined the pilot determined that he had suffered a burned retina from exposure to a laser device, the officials said.

Earlier this year, an intern at Los Alamos National Laboratory was struck by a laser in the eye, causing retinal damage. That incident lead to a shut down of the lab, and the firing of at least two employees.

John Mazor, a spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, said commercial pilots have been exposed to laser illumination. "The Air Line Pilots Association has received reports in the past of incidents where lasers penetrated cockpits and, in at least one case, caused injury," Mr. Mazor said...

Military personnel also have suffered eye damage from laser illumination. In one case, Naval Lt. Cmdr. Jack Daly and Canadian helicopter pilot Capt. Pat Barnes suffered eye injuries hours after an aerial surveillance mission to photograph a Russian merchant ship that had been shadowing the ballistic-missile submarine USS Ohio in Washington state's Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Navy recently turned down an appeal from the Defense Department inspector general to award Cmdr. Daly a Purple Heart for the incident. Cmdr. Daly, who retired from the service last year, continues to suffer eye pain and deteriorating vision. (via Drudge)

LASERS 1, MORTARS 0

radar_lowres2.jpgLasers have been getting pretty good at knocking down rockets, as we've seen in tests over the last few years. Now, the ray guns are starting to prove that they can zap one of the most common battlefield threats – mortars – as well.

In tests last week at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Tactical High Energy Laser blasted individual mortar rounds and salvos of the munitions. That's the first time a "directed energy" weapon has done so. Since 2000, the weapon, a collaboration between the American and Israeli militaries, has been successfully zapping rockets and artillery shells in tests.

U.S. forces in Iraq could sure use the ray gun right now; mortars have become a favorite of insurgents there, used almost as commonly as roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades. Two teenagers were killed over the weekend when mortars struck eastern Baghdad. But the laser is still years away from operational use – 2007, at the earliest. (via GeekPress)

RAY GUN RESEARCH POWERS UP

laser_mirror.JPGThe most powerful lasers today probably wouldn't work that well as weapons. They have the energy needed to zap oncoming missiles. But, powered by enormous vats of chemicals, they're really too cumbersome to work in the battlefield.

Solid state lasers don't have those logistical problems. Until recently, though, the energy they've generated has been pretty puny – just 10 kilowatts or so, instead of the 100 kilowatts that most think are needed to make a workable weapon.

Now, Aviation Week reports, the Defense Department is on track to demonstrate three, solid state laser designs that can hit the 25 kw mark by the end of the year. The goal is to reach 100 kw by 2006.

If and when that target is hit, officials at the Air Force Research Laboratory "would like to put an SSL [solid state laser] in one bomb bay of a B-1B bomber and evaluate it as a missile defense self-protection system. A bomber-mounted laser also might be a viable weapon against soft targets, such as an aircraft on the ground."

Eventually, an SSL weapon system could make its way into a next-generation fighter plane – maybe even a drone aircraft. "But I think we can make an impact in the bomber fleet much quicker than we can in the fighter fleet," ARFL's laser chief tells Aviation Week.

Solid-state lasers have "only became feasible recently," the magazine notes.

"A switch from flash- to diode-driven lasers was key, thanks to considerable investment by telecommunications companies -- which caused an explosion of laser diode production -- and [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's] development of the National Ignition Facility (NIF). A huge complex for simulating the temperatures and pressures inside a thermonuclear detonation, NIF will focus 192 laser beams onto a small pellet of fusion material, delivering 500 trillion watts peak-power within a few billionths of a second.

MAYDAY FOR LASER JET

abl.JPGIn 1996, when the Pentagon first starting pushing the Airborne Laser -- a 747 armed with an anti-missile ray gun -- the idea was to have one of the jets shooting down projectiles by 2002, and fully-functioning by 2008. Over the years, that goal has been pushed back. Way back. And now, it looks like the ABL project is in worse shape than anyone thought.

Not long ago, the ABL was supposed to have its first big trial in early 2005. Now, Aviation Week reports, that could slip another year, easily. And the test will be dumbed down, big time. Instead of actually zapping an oncoming missile, the jet will just try to reach "first light" -- in other words, get the chemical oxygen iodine laser to simply power up.

"One reason ABL has fallen behind schedule stems from serious problems with component quality, Aviation Week says. "Around 800 components, largely in the laser area, were rejected when they were delivered because of shoddy workmanship, complained one industry official. Others argue that many components were being built for the first time, so unanticipated problems were encountered."

A recent Congressional report on the program notes that "specialized valves have been recalled twice, laser fluid management software has been delayed due to inadequate definition of requirements, and improperly cleaned plumbing and material issues have required over 3,000 hr. of unplanned work."

"We believe we can make ABL work very, very well," says Missile Defense Agency chief Lt. Gen. Ron Kadish, "but we're having trouble doing it."

ARMY FOCUSING ON "EASY" LASER WEAPONS

laser 2.JPGIn the world of laser guns and death rays, there's hard to pull off. And then's really, really hard to do.

The Army has decided to concentrate on developing some of the easier "directed energy" weapons. The idea is to prove to a skeptical military community that lasers can, in fact, be used to blow stuff up -- and not just on Babylon 5.

"Several significant DE systems already are vying for Army attention and funding," Aerospace Daily reports, "but each faces technological hurdles."

While Sparta Inc.'s Zeus, a Humvee-mounted laser system, has destroyed unexploded ordnance in Afghanistan, it still has significant limitations, including its reliance on other forces to detect ordnance...

The Army is expected later this year to award a contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to build a prototype of the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser. But while a fixed-site demonstrator has successfully shot down artillery shells and Katyusha rockets, the size of the chemical laser has to be reduced significantly to make it mobile, which is considered a key requirement for battlefield use.

The Army has expressed interest in the Solid State Heat Capacity Laser as a potential weapon on ground vehicles, believing it ultimately would have advantages over chemical lasers, including requiring a smaller logistics burden. However, the technology for electrically driven, solid-state lasers is considered even less mature than that of chemical lasers.

AIRBORNE LASER IN TROUBLE AGAIN

The star-crossed Airborne Laser program could be headed for a big funding cut, and maybe even elimination, Aviation Week reports.

Since the 80's, the U.S. military has toyed with putting a chemical laser on board a commercial jumbo jet, and using that plane to defend against enemy missile attacks. But putting that idea into action has been beyond difficult. Keeping the Airborne Laser's weight down has been a big, fat challenge -- especially with 1,200 gallons of chemicals needed to fire the laser. Test flights have been pushed back, over and over again.

Now, Aviation Week says, the Defense Department is looking to restructure the program, and pare back its budget. Nearly $600 million is supposed to be poured into the Airborne Laser this fiscal year.

"The option of cancelling the program outright" has been raised by Pentagon planners. But the "prevailing view," so far, is to keep the Airborne Laser's near-term work intact, and scale back more future-facing efforts.

As Aviation Week notes, "The Pentagon has already awarded Boeing a contact for design work on a second 747-400F that would be converted into a laser carrier. But the actual aircraft order may be delayed."

LASERS POWER PLANES, DRONES

Somewhere, Nikola Tesla is smiling.

More than a century ago, Tesla - as famous for his discovery of alternating current as for his claim of inventing a giant death ray - dazzled onlookers by sending bolts of electricity crackling 30 feet through the air. To him this was proof that one day information and electricity would be sent across the skies instead of through copper cable.

Since then, Tesla's intellectual descendents have fantasized about, and dabbled in, the possibility of reliably transmitting power without wires. After decades of on-again, off-again experimentation, this Tesla-inspired dream is now showing signs of becoming real, at least in a modest way.

In September, in a hangar in Huntsville, Ala., NASA engineers flew a small propeller-driven model plane powered from the ground by a beam of laser light. The Army, meanwhile, is looking to finance research into laser-charged drone aircraft. And Boeing engineers have already built a tiny lunar rover that runs on laser-transmitted energy.

My New York Times story has the details.

THERE'S MORE: The "power-beaming" crowd has always been a group of, shall we say, ambitious thinkers. Case in point: The Advanced Concepts Team of the European Space Agency proposed a network of 1,870 microwave power-beaming satellites, each 15 kilometers long – 136 times the size of the completed International Space Station. This constellation would send energy to 103 receiving bases scattered across the globe, each 27 by 30 kilometers big.

AND MORE: As if on cue, Dr. David Criswell -- the director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston -- talked up power-beaming to Congress on Thursday.

"Solar power bases will be built on the Moon that collect a small fraction of the Moon's dependable solar power and convert it into power beams that will dependably deliver lunar solar power to receivers on Earth," he said.

LASER-EQUIPPED 747 PREPPED FOR 2005 TRIAL

"After years of development, the Pentagon is about to learn whether its investment of time and millions of dollars in the Airborne Laser missile defense system has paid off," Aviation Week notes.

The Airborne Laser -- a modified 747 that shoots chemically-powered beams of ultrahot light -- has been in the works since the Reagan years. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Air Force have been developing components for the plane's current iteration since 1996.

But during the course of the next year all those elements will have to be integrated to confront one major remaining challenge: shooting down a boosting ballistic missile over the Pacific.

What lies ahead in the coming months is expected to be a difficult engineering endeavor. Program managers recognize that they still have to overcome high hurdles, and indicate the shootdown attempt is likely going to occur in 2005, not late 2004. "It gets more and more challenging to hold to the 2004 date," notes ABL program director USAF Col. Ellen M. Pawlikowski.

The shootdown attempt should go a long way toward addressing the main questions hanging over ABL: can adequate laser energy be generated to overcome atmospheric absorption, can the energy be focused on a small enough point to damage a missile, and will the software-intensive battle management system work? Even a successful test won't convince all critics, since the first test will be at relatively close range, intentionally designed to demonstrate system functionality rather than determine if the ABL can accomplish its mission in a stressful setting.

THERE'S MORE: In a separate story, the magazine notes that "the Air Force is exploring the use of lasers in other roles," as well. "For instance, service officials indicate there are efforts quietly ongoing to develop and test a laser weapon for use on F-16s."

LASERS TO ZAP S.A.M.s?

Portable, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs) are becoming an increasing concern among Washington policy-makers. Just last week, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials were travelling to aiports around the globe, looking for ways to minimize the missile threat to commercial planes. The inspections will likely lead to nuts-and-bolts-type changes, like tightened police patrols along planes' takeoff routes.

Arms-maker Northrop Grumman is pushing a higher-tech solution, according to Jane's Defence Weekly (subscribers only). The company wants to equip airports with deuterium-fluoride chemical lasers that can zap missiles with a lethal energy beam.

The project, Hazardous Ordnance Engagement Toolkit (HORNET), is an outgrowth of Northrup's work on the Mobile Tactical High Energy Laser (MTHEL) anti-missile system for Israel and the U.S. In tests, the fixed version of that laser has been able to knock down katyusha rockets -- the arms frequently used by the Hizbullah terrorist group.

THERE'S MORE: "I just hope they don't put any of those zappers at the airports I fly in and out of. With ideas like this, we don't need to worry about terrorists taking down airliners, those lasers could be doing it for the terrorists," said one Defense Tech reader, who, trust me, speaks with authority on these matters.

The time to engage a portable shoulder-fired SAM near an airport is so short that the zappers would have to be on automatic all the time. Shades of the Patriot incident in Iraq with the U.S. Air Force F-16. At least the F-16 could (and did) fire back!

Now maybe what we need are high power lasers on board commercial airliners so they can fire back when accidentally engaged by these zappers.

I'm just kidding, but from your article, I don't think Northrup is.

NAVY PLANS DISPOSABLE RAY GUNS

American warships could be armed with disposable laser weapons within five years, if a plan by U.S. Navy scientists works as promised.

Michael Wardlaw, with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, has proposed that the Navy use a battery of solid-state, one-shot-only lasers to zap enemy boats and defend against missile attacks. This Expendable Modular High Energy Laser (EMHEL), Jane's Defence Weekly reports, would use a brick of 120, meter-long laser modules that could fire individually or in one giant pulse.

"Each individual module would contain a single-shot laser capable of firing 10 kilojoules of energy at peak power in a single burst," Jane's notes. "With such a system, Wardlaw said, 'you can drill through 6in [15cm] of steel in under a second.'" (emphasis mine)

Wardlaw noted that, given proper funding, he "could envision having modules available within a year and systems available in probably five" years. The EMHEL could be ready so soon, he explained, because work on the concept has already been conducted and because "it's more a new way of thinking about the problem than it is a technological challenge."

By dropping the requirement for the laser to have to survive for multiple shots and instead being expendable, Wardlaw said, the cost of each can be reduced dramatically. And by having small modules that can be mass-produced, economies of scale can be achieved during production, reducing costs still further.