Thursday, July 28, 2011

Navy’s Next Laser Mashes Up Machine Guns and Death Rays

A machine gun is a powerful weapon, particularly on board a Navy ship. But it suffers from what some would consider a design flaw: It’s not a laser cannon. Until now.

It’s the next move in the Navy’s dicey long-term mission to protect surface ships with death rays: Two defense giants, Boeing and BAE Systems, have teamed up to combine a solid-state laser weapon with BAE’s Mk-38 25-mm machine gun. On Monday, they announced they’re developing a demonstration model together for shipboard defense, which a Boeing vice president called a revolutionary one-two punch against enemy ships or small drones.

The next model Mk-38 will have a twin capability: It can keep firing off 180 rounds per minute with an effective range of 2000 yards. Or it can fire off “different levels of laser energy,” according to BAE spokeswoman Stephanie Bissell Serkhoshian. And the two can be combined, as the laser can identify and lock on a target for the machine gun to fill with lead.

Right now, the prototype that BAE and Boeing jointly developed — thanks to a $2.8 million Navy contract awarded in March — tops out at a laser blast of 10 kilowatts. That’s an order of magnitude below what’s considered militarily effective. And there are many other hurdles for the system to overcome: It’s a solid-state fiber laser, meaning light has to focus through a crystal medium to create a deadly beam, and all the crud in sea air can diminish the potency of those kinds of lasers.

Still, a solid-state laser not manufactured by Boeing and BAE succeeded in blasting the engine off a small watercraft during an April test off the coast of California. That laser, operated by the eggheads at the Office of Naval Research, used a mere 15-kilowatt beam to disable the boat from a mile away. (more)