Wired Talks to the Navy about the Superlaser program

The Navy is increasingly excited about building a superpowerful laser to shoot down missiles and rockets that might attack its ship

The US Navy has an open-ended, $163 million project to develop one into a weapon. Last September, it gave Boeing $26 million task order to develop a prototype design for the laser — the company completed a preliminary design in March — that’ll deliver by early 2012.

The current lab model lasers at Jefferson uses an oscillator, with energy stored up in its cavity, and runs at 10 percent efficiency. He’s “99.99 percent confident” the Free Electron Laser can get to 100 kilowatts: Boeing will have to improve efficiency or pump ten times more power into it.

One Naval generator, on all the ships they’re planning on building in their more-electric fleet capacity, can put up to two megawatts of power. Of course, the Navy plans on having more than one generator on its vessels… 100 kilowatts is not a power constraint for a naval weapons system for an FEL.

At 10% efficiency one generator could power 200 kilowatts of lasers.

Use the lasers for something other than burning a missile out of the sky, and the required energy dose drops. “Being that there are multiple different types of ways to protect” a ship — using the laser as a targeting system for on-board guns or a sensor, for instance — “means that not all things require 100 kilowatts. Maybe some of those waves only require 1 kilowatt. Maybe some of those waves only require only 50 watts.”

Development is to take place at Boeing’s directed-energy labs in Albuquerque, with additional research taking place at the national laboratories at Argonne, Los Alamos and Brookhaven; the Naval Postgraduate School; Yale and other locations. It’ll be years before shipboard tests can even take place, let alone getting it out into the fleet.

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