11 November 2010

US Navy's Free Electron Super-Laser Energy Weapon ++

H/T BrianWang

The US Navy plans to equip its nuclear ships with powerful, tunable, free electron lasers which can serve as powerful energy weapons as well as serve several other functions. The Chinese military is developing a lethal "carrier killer" missile, meant to neutralise the power of the US aircraft carrier groups which may intervene in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The US Navy wants to neutralise this threat in turn, as well as accomplishing many other weapons and non-weapons capabilities with the new, powerful laser.
All lasers require some kind of medium to turn light into high-energy beams--solid state lasers use crystals, while chemical lasers use (you guessed it) a stew of unfriendly chemicals. Both of those versions have their pros and cons, but neither is extraordinarily versatile; they generally power their lasers up to a certain wavelength and that’s that.

Free electron lasers, on the other hand, use a stream of supercharged electrons to power the laser at varying wavelengths. This versatility is why the Navy has referred to FELs as the Holy Grail of laser tech and why it has embarked on a $163 million quest to develop a working weapons system, $26 million of which is currently facilitating a development program at Boeing that’s due for delivery in 2012. _PopSci

Sure, everyone wants a “death ray,” as the Navy’s chief of research, Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, put it yesterday. But the program manager at the Office of Naval Research for the Free Electron Laser, Quentin Saulter, tells Danger Room that the Navy is looking at “multiple uses, not a single use” for its “Holy Grail” of lasers. And that might lighten the laser’s energy burden.

What would the laser do when it’s not trying to blast a missile out of the sky? “It can be used as a sensor,” Saulter says in an interview during the Office of Naval Research’s science and technology conference in Virginia. “It can be used as a tracker… It can enable kinetic kill systems to be more precise. It can be used for location, time-of-flight location, information exchange, can be used for communications, it can be used for target designation, it can be used for disruption.” _Wired_via_BrianWang

The US is involved in something of a new "arms race" with China, similar to an earlier arms race with the now-defunct USSR. But the US military will not be able to out-spend China the way it did the Soviets. And keeping a technological lead over the Chinese will be difficult when US corporations and labs are teeming with corporate and overseas spies -- and when US corporations themselves are vying with each other to transfer advanced technology to the Chinese, and to build huge new state of the art tech fabs and factories on the Chinese mainland.

The Chinese, in other words, will have the blueprints to the new weapons long before they are built. While Chinese infrastructure may be lagging in many areas of high technology, eventually they will be able to build and/or counteract whatever US labs invent and develop. That is something the US military must keep in mind when it spends big money on advanced weapons.

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