Northrop Grumman Corp. engineers in Redondo Beach have developed an electric
laser capable of producing a deadly 100-kilowatt ray of light, a major
milestone that is expected to help transform what was once a Buck Rogers
space fantasy into reality.
Announced Wednesday, the landmark achievement -- long considered a Holy
Grail for weapon developers -- opens the way for development of laser
weapons small enough to fit in a fighter jet yet powerful enough to destroy
an enemy craft in the blink of an eye.
After more than four decades of frustrations and failures, "you can now see
that the battlefield applications of laser weapons are becoming a real
possibility," said Barry Watts, senior fellow and an expert on so-called
directed energy weapons at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Assessments think tank in Washington.
Laser guns are still years from being used in combat and it may be the
middle of next decade before they are installed on fighter planes, tanks and
But Northrop "proved" that a laser powered by electricity could generate a
beam powerful enough to destroy targets in the battlefield, said Brian
Strickland, the Army's manager for the Joint High Power Solid State Laser
"This is a major milestone because we have proven that we can build it,"
The beam from a solid-state laser is powered by electricity, which can be
generated by a jet engine or the turbines of a tank. Chemical lasers are
capable of producing much more powerful beams, but because the energy output
relies on the quantity of chemicals used, they take up a lot of space.
Dan Wildt, vice president of Northrop's directed energy systems program,
said few believed that an electric laser could produce a 100-kilowatt beam.
Reaching even 10 kilowatts was considered a milestone just a few years ago.
"Five years ago few people believed that a solid-state laser could produce a
militarily suitable 100-kilowatt beam," Wildt said.
With the major hurdle overcome, the next step would be to take the laser
from the laboratory to the field and begin shooting down missiles with it,
Strickland said. The laser would also have to be scaled down and "ruggedized"
so it could withstand battlefield abuse. "It is still a little heavy and a
little big," he said.
The word "laser" is an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated
emission of radiation." The technology turns atomic particles into light
with enough radiation to damage an object it encounters. The range and
severity of the damage depend on how much power can be generated and how
well the light can be focused on a target.
The Northrop laser produced a beam at more than 105 kilowatts, which is akin
to focusing more than 1,000 100-watt light bulbs on a small spot. The
intensity of the light would be comparable to that on the surface of the
A secret demonstration was held for the military at Northrop's Space Park in
Redondo Beach last month and then verified by the Army before it was
The sprawling complex, built during the height of the Cold War, has
developed some of the nation's most complex weapon systems, including the
Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile, as well as pioneering military
communication and spy satellites. It took up laser research in the 1960s and
became the first laboratory to develop a weapons-grade chemical laser.