Directed energy weapons first took a step towards reality in the 1980s under President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed “Star Wars” by the media. But, the technology didn't really materialize at that time and the cessation of the Cold War largely removed the immediate impetus to develop it. Since then, lasers have become widely used in military applications, particularly for target designation and aircraft countermeasures, but there is still no significant deployment of lasers as offensive weapons. Now, advances in high power fiber laser technology, particularly in the efficiency, compactness and weight of their pump diode lasers, are poised to make laser weapons a practical reality.

Figure 1. The Boeing HEL MD has demonstrated the ability to destroy a 60 mm mortar round in flight. (Photo courtesy of Boeing Defense)
Figure 2. A Coherent | DILAS T-Bar chip contains five emitters, outputs about 50 W, and is 5 mm wide.

Laser Weapons Overview

The concept behind Reagan's SDI was to protect the United States behind a “missile shield” that would prevent nuclear weapons, delivered via either intercontinental or submarine-launched ballistic missiles, from reaching North America. Part of the SDI was to be lasers, or other directed energy weapons, placed in permanent orbit, which could rapidly knock out a nuclear missile already in flight towards its target. Lasers, in particular, were a promising technology for this application because they can be quickly “charged up” (i.e. be made ready to fire), and their output can reach a fast-moving target nearly instantaneously.

Because these lasers were intended to be deployed primarily in space, or in fixed locations, and used either never (hopefully) or just once, there wasn't much concern about their cost, physical size, weight or operational efficiency. The key goal was simply that they would work when needed, delivering the required knock-out punch.

The offensive laser weaponry under development today is intended to serve almost the exact opposite purpose than the SDI, and therefore has very different goals in terms of its design and functionality. For example, one major laser weapons initiative is for C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar). These are systems intended to be deployed in the battlefield to protect troops and equipment from incoming projectiles. Currently, these are envisioned to be single, vehicle mounted lasers, with output powers in the 10 kW to 50 kW range.

Boeing has already successfully prototyped such a system, which they call the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). This consists of a 10 kW solid state laser installed on an Oshkosh Tactical Military Vehicle, along with all the necessary targeting and control systems. HEL MD has proven the ability to lock on to and destroy a mortar round of about 10 inches in length, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, from several miles out. The system is also effective against Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones); in this case, it may be sufficient to damage the drone's navigation and targeting systems, rather than completely destroy it. Similarly, other offensive laser weapons systems are being designed to deliver “swarm defense,” that is, to protect a ship or base from attack by a large number of inexpensive drones.

Figure 3. Progression from a single T-Bar die to an 80-emitter stack. The light from all these emitters can be efficiently coupled into a single 225 μm core fiber with a 0.22 NA.

Thus, today's laser weapons are meant to defend against swarms of inexpensive mortar rounds, drones and other projectiles, and are intended to be mounted on platforms which are mobile and self-contained (meaning they may not have ready access to an external source of power). This gives rise to several design imperatives. First, they must deliver a low cost per engagement; it's simply not economically feasible to employ an expensive weapon (such as a missile costing over $100,000) to knock out a drone which costs $1,000, or a mortar round which might cost less than $100. The laser weapon must also be capable of rapid fire so that it can't just be over-whelmed by a large number of simultaneous incoming rounds. Also, rapid fire reduces the number of individual laser weapons systems needed to protect a given number of troops. But, the ability to deliver rapid fire also necessitates that the system be electrically efficient. Otherwise the laser weapon will require access to a large quantity of fuel, which is difficult (and dangerous) to transport into a battlefield. Finally, it's desirable that laser weapons be physically compact, especially for airborne use.

SWaP Optimization

The push to optimize the size, weight and power (called SWaP in military parlance) of field deployed laser weapons has driven a progression in the technology of the gain material used from chemical (e.g. deuterium fluoride), to solid state, and, most recently, to fiber. One reason for this is because fiber lasers offer inherently higher efficiency, in terms of converting input pump energy to usable output, than nearly any other laser type, except diode lasers. However, diode lasers by themselves don't provide the necessary brightness or beam quality, while diode-pumped fiber lasers can. And, beam quality is critical because it determines the distance over which the laser can be focused to a spot size small enough to reach the power density necessary to damage its target.

Fiber lasers offer other advantages in terms of SWaP optimization. Chemical and lamp pumped solid state lasers require a significant overhead in terms of the equipment and power supplies required to run them. In contrast, both solid state (e.g. slab and rod) and fiber lasers can be diode pumped, and diode power supplies and pump modules themselves are electrically efficient and lend themselves to miniaturization. This efficiency, in turn, reduces the cooling requirements, and all its attendant equipment (pumps, heat exchangers, etc.).

But, as laser weapons evolve towards ever higher powers, fiber laser technology becomes increasingly attractive over solid state. Currently, individual fiber lasers can deliver up to about 2 kW of power, but multiple units can be combined to deliver around 10 kW in a single beam with extremely good mode quality. It's a bit more difficult to scale up the power of a solid-state laser, especially while maintaining good mode quality. This is because scaling up and/or increasing the pump power to a traditional solid state laser typically excites higher order modes, and introduces other issues related to thermal lensing.

Of course, there are also challenges to increasing the power of a fiber amplifier. And, because the optical efficiency of their pumping is already so high (~85%), there's not much room for improvement there. So, the focus is on raising the pump power itself, without increasing package size and weight, as well as on methods for low loss beam combining of multiple single mode lasers, all while still maintaining good beam quality.