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article imageNew mobile US Navy laser weapon approved to commence design

By Paul Wallis     Sep 14, 2010 in Technology
Not Star Wars, but a working big laser defence system for ships, the Free Electron Laser (FEL) demonstrator has been given the go-ahead. Boeing’s FEL is the latest in a range of laser weapons which have been under development for decades.
FEL, however, is different. The FEL system is a 100kw system, a big laser by any standards, but this one has some tricks of its own. It has a tuner to maximize range, and a spot targeting system which can target specific areas on the target. Both of these innovations are a far cry from the old systems.
A tuner means that the beam of electrons can be precision controlled. The problem with lasers is that they tend to spray and diffuse, partly as a natural behavior of light and partly because the old beams weren’t very efficient. These beams are “passed through magnetic fields”, meaning that electrons, being charged particles, can be magnetically controlled. Doing that with magnetic fields requires particularly fine control.
The range factor is a development of the tuning capabilities. A beam must be cohesive to have an effect, particularly on an incoming missile with ideas of its own.
The US Navy has been testing a range of laser systems, including a Raytheon solid state laser which shot down several UAVs earlier this year. FEL is a different type of system, but the intentions of the Navy in developing this type of system is clear. The economics of lasers are quite different, and their capabilities are in a different league.
There’s a good reason for using beams instead of existing anti-missile systems. A rapid series of laser pulses could knock out multiple missiles with a good, accurate targeting system. That’s a lot more efficient than hard ammunition which can run out at the wrong times, and requires a lot of storage space.
FEL is supposed to be a defensive system. In theory, FEL or one of its descendants should be capable of anti-shipping roles, but the power factor is an issue. A laser can’t act like a gunnery system and punch big holes in a ship very efficiently. It could, however, wipe out electronics, communications, steering and weapon systems with accurate fire. A 10 second burst of pulses could knock out multiple systems very efficiently.
It may also deal with another naval issue: Cost. FEL isn’t likely to be a cheap system, but by comparison, and given the potential capacity to do the job of other weapons systems, and remove their maintenance costs, it’d be very cost effective.
Another point about FEL is that a ship could operate multiple systems quite easily. One system which can do which FEL is supposed to do would be a problem- 10 or more of them would be a big problem, particularly if it has a standoff capability.
More about Boeing fel laser, Usa navy, Laser missile defence
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