The Army Is Building a New High Powered Laser

The Army wants to build a new kind of laser that fires in 1 quadrillionth of a second.
February 25, 2021, 4:44pm
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Image: U.S. Navy

The Army wants to develop a new kind of laser weapon that would cut through armor, blind computer sensors, and disrupt electronics. The Army asked for help developing the weapon on the Pentagon’s Small Business Investment Research website, a place where the Pentagon posts contracts for small businesses to bid on. It's calling the high energy laser a tactical ultrashort pulsed laser and though it’s years away from being deployed, the idea is rooted in existing science.

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The Pentagon has been developing high energy laser weapons for years now. The Navy has deployed a laser weapon on the USS Ponce, a transport ship. Most laser weapons fire a continuous wave of energy directed at a target with the aim of heating it up, possibly catching it on fire, and disrupting electronics. In tests, the USS Ponce’s laser has downed simple drone

What the Army wants to build is something different. Rather than use a continuous wave to produce a laser beam, the Army’s weapon would produce an ultrashort pulse. Instead of one continuous beam, the hypothetical weapon would produce one powerful burst of energy. According to the Army, this would give the weapon a unique advantage on the field.

“While most [continuous wave] lasers simply melt targets, [ultrashort pulse laser] systems are able to neutralize threats via three distinct mechanisms: ablation of material from the target, the blinding of sensors through broadband supercontinuum generation in the air, and the generation of a localized electronic interference used to overload a threat’s internal electronics,” the solicitation said.

Universities and researchers have developed ultrashort pulse lasers that fire in a femtosecond—1 quadrillionth of a second—but the machines have never left the laboratory. “Over the last two decades, femtosecond lasers have gone from requiring dedicated buildings at national laboratories to sitting on academic optics tables across the country,” the Pentagon said in its solicitation. “These [ultrashort pulse laser] advancements, while promising, still have many hurdles to overcome in [size, weight, and power], relevant operating environments, and consistent mass manufacturing.”

The Pentagon has been developing lasers for various uses for more than a decade now. China has also been developing laser weapons, including a rifle it said has a half-mile range. The Pentagon is less interested in equipping infantry with laser weapons than it is shooting down cruise missiles and drones with laser defense systems. With few exceptions, these weapons haven’t made it to active duty.