The US Senate Armed Services Committee has voted to pull funding for the Navy's shipboard free-electron laser (FEL). If the recommendations make it through the budgeting process, the program will be, well, dead in the water. Now, when I first heard the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) was working on an FEL for shipboard defense, I have to confess, I rolled my eyes. I may have even snorted. When I was in grad school at the University of Central Florida CREOL, one of my buddies worked for the FEL group. In the entire time I was there, not only did they not obtain coherent light, they never generated any light at all.
Granted, time had passed since then (at least a few months) and the technology had progressed, but one thing will never change: Lasers hate unstable environments, whether thermally or mechanically. Forget about shock and awe, ocean-going ships specialize in shock and vibration, not to mention heat and a corrosive salt-air environment. Based on what I knew, getting a shipboard FEL up and running was the longest of long shots.
Of course, that was what I said about the Airborne Laser (ABL) project, too and guess what? They made it work (was my face red). The problem with that project, ultimately, came down to funding: The systems cost so much that it simply wasn’t financially viable to have enough of them in the air to provide any meaningful degree of protection. The program survives only as the Airborne Laser Test Bed, although that survival grows more tenuous by the year – the Armed Services Committee also recommended a substantial cut to the ABL Test Bed. As time goes on, the challenge for directed-energy weapons increasingly appears to be not solving the technology problem but solving the funding problem.
Earlier this spring, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) demonstrated its high-energy solid-state laser, a separate project from the FEL, by setting the engines of a small boat on fire. Based on commercial off-the-shelf components, that laser program probably stands a better chance of survival. The weapons are still substantially more expensive than conventional systems but do not carry the additional operational costs of ordnance. Meanwhile, Boeing just announced the integration of the Army’s High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD), a kilowatt-class system designed for deployment on a ground vehicle (see note above regarding what lasers hate). The technologies appear solid. But with the ongoing battle over the deficit, will they survive the budgeting process long enough to come to fruition? Will the technology be sufficiently robust for long-term deployment? Perhaps most important, will they be affordable enough to deploy in sufficient numbers to make them practical?
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