By Ann Roosevelt

Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] announced their solid-state laser (SSL) system was tapped by the Army for tests that begin this year at Army High Energy Laser System Test Facility (HELSTF), N.M.

The laser, which produced the most powerful beam ever from a continuous wave, electric laser last year, will join other pioneering speed-of-light weapons demonstrators at HELSTF.

In cooperation with Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command (USASMDC/ARSTRAT), which operates the test range at White Sands Missile Range, BAE Systems has contracted with Northrop Grumman to relocate the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) Phase 3 system from the company’s laser factory in Redondo Beach, Calif., to HELSTF.

The laser will be integrated with the beam control and command and control systems from another Northrop Grumman-built system, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) to provide the Army with the world’s first high-power, Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment (SSLTE).

“The SSLTE offers a great opportunity for HELSTF to take the lead establishing itself as the range of choice for Directed Energy testing,” Col. James Jaworski, director of HELSTF, said. “HELSTF is the only open range capable of providing the DoD with true target lethality and vulnerability parameters at tactically relevant ranges and environments, and at HEL weapon system power levels. This will build the foundation to provide the warfighter with a new and substantial capability.”

“Northrop Grumman will have a lead role in integrating and operating the Army’s solid-state laser test bed,” Steve Hixson, vice president of Advanced Concepts–Space and Directed Energy Systems for Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems sector, said. “We bring substantial expertise to this project from our many years of experience building and demonstrating tactically-relevant laser systems.”

The SSLTE will be used to evaluate the capability of a 100kW-class solid-state laser to accomplish a variety of missions.

Those results will be the basis for directing future development of solid-state lasers as a weapon system.

“Solid-state lasers have achieved militarily useful power levels and packaging densities,” Dan Wildt, vice president of Directed Energy Systems, said. “We have been demonstrating laser performance at HELSTF and other test sites for many years, unequivocally proving their lethality against a wide variety of potential threats.”

These include missiles of various sizes and speeds, helicopters, drones, rockets, artillery, mortar rounds and submunitions.

Both the relocation of the JHPSSL Phase 3 device and the THEL facility refurbishment are being carried out under an Army contract with BAE, which has overall responsibility for the SSLTEsystems engineering and test planning. BAE is also developing a modular and transportable enclosure to house the JHPSSL device and its control room at the site.

Under the JHPSSL program, Northrop Grumman became the first company to reach the 100kW power level threshold for a solid-state laser. The achievement also included a turn-on time of less than one second and continuous operating time of greater than five minutes, with very good efficiency and beam quality.

“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 JHPSSL. “With this 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.”

Textron [TXT] developed a SSL device that also achieved 100 kW performance this year, and was part of the Phase 3 JHPSSL program that is now complete. The Army is looking at test results. At this point the service has no plans to move it to HELSTF.

A 100kW laser can rapidly heat a target causing various catastrophic effects, such as exploding a warhead or airframe failure.

The JHPSSL program is funded by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology; Office of the Secretary of Defense-High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office, Albuquerque, N.M.; Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland AFB, N.M.; and the Office of Naval Research, Arlington, Va.

Responsibility for program execution is assigned to USASMDC/ARSTRAT in Huntsville, Ala.

For more than 30 years, the Army and other DoD organizations have developed and tested a variety of directed energy devices, including both chemical and solid state lasers.

High-power chemical lasers proved to be successful in testing against rockets, artillery and mortars (RAM), but used chemical fuels that would cause a large logistical burden.

In 2005, the Army decided to focus on all-electric SSLs as the lower cost high energy laser (HEL) path to the future, with the only consumable being diesel fuel for electric generators.

When it is developed into a weapon, a 100kW class SSL will be capable of protecting the warfighter against RAM threats and unmanned aerial systems. Other mission applications for scalable high power SSLs include stand-off negation of unexploded ordnance and IEDs, anti-sensor applications, and precision strike.

Northrop Grumman has long been in the laser business, early on with the Alpha Laser, an Air Force program, under then-program director Dan Wildt, based in California. Alpha has been dismantled for several years now, with the gain generator now on display in the company’s lobby museum. Another part of Alpha is now at the Air Force Academy.

Also, Northrop Grumman designed and built the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) for the Navy, a megawatt-class, continuous wave chemical laser at HELSTF.

The company also developed the first standalone, fully integrated laser weapon system demonstrator, the THEL test bed, also at HELSTF, a joint effort by the Army and Israel’s Ministry of Defence, to engage short-range Katyusha l rockets.

Both MIRACL and THEL chemical lasers have been dismantled. The Army in 2005 decided to move from chemical to solid-state lasers.

At HELSTF, the Army tests high-energy laser technologies and weapon systems for propagation, lethality, survivability and dynamic engagements. HELSTF has access to the 3,200 square miles of restricted land area and 7,000 square miles of restricted airspace at White Sands to conduct such tests.