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Northrop Grumman tests new laser weapon


May 14, 2012

The Gamma laser was tested against the skin and components of a BQM-7 drone

The Gamma laser was tested against the skin and components of a BQM-7 drone

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Practical laser weapons came another step closer to reality recently as defense contractor Northrop Grumman tested the latest version of its Firestrike solid-state lasers. On May 1st, the company announced that it had completed trials at its Redondo Beach laboratory of a more powerful and rugged generation of its slab lasers, that combine with improved sensor capacities to create a general laser component that can provide the military with a wide range of greatly enhanced defensive and offensive laser capabilities.

The dream of a laser “death ray” has been around since the invention of the laser in the 1960s. This isn’t surprising, since lasers are coherent light beams with enough focus to bounce a beam off the Moon, and a laser can concentrate enough energy on a target to burn through steel. The latter was a common laboratory trick in those early days, where engineers would show off the power of the laser by cutting through razor blades so often that an early unit for measuring laser power was in “Gillettes."

Cutting through a razor blade on a bench top and piercing armor plate or bringing down a missile in flight are very different things, however. The potential of laser weapons was offset by problems with power, waste heat, aiming, atmospheric interference, and the bulk and fragility of the apparatus, to name just a few. Though laser weapons became a staple of science fiction, in the real world lasers were relegated to industry and medicine with the only military applications being in range finding and communications.

However, this didn’t mean that the military lost all interest in laser weapons. In the1980s, the United States poured billions of dollars into anti-ballistic missile lasers, the British deployed a system for dazzling enemy pilots and the Soviets experimented with a tank armed with a laser weapon. By the 1990s, the Americans had installed an anti-missile laser inside a Boeing 747 for field tests and in the 21st century, Coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan were using lasers to detonate IEDs ... and yet, practical weapons remained elusive. Despite setbacks, the American airborne laser, for example, had considerable success, but the system was based on a laser that used highly toxic chemicals to generate the beam. The equipment was expensive, extremely fragile, dangerous to be around, and a logistical nightmare.

The Firestrike laser was developed with a different philosophy than previous efforts. Instead of building an extremely powerful laser and then figuring out how to make it practical, Northrop Grumman took the approach of making small, rugged lasers and then working on how to scale them up to practical size. The Firestrike system tries this by using a “slab” laser, in which the lasing element of the device is a slab of glass or crystal about the size of a microscope slide that’s been doped with a rare earth element such as neodymium or chromium. This is pumped with a light source, such as a flash lamp, and the photons inside the slab are induced to “cascade," that is, move in the same direction, and generate a laser.


The latest Firestrike laser, named Gamma, generates a stable, high-quality beam for 1.5 hours. Its power output is only 13.3 kilowatts, which isn’t nearly large enough to do much on its own, but the recent tests did prove the power and ruggedness of the system. The Gamma is smaller than previous Firestrikes, weighing in at only 500 pounds (227 kg) and measuring about the same size as a pair of countertop microwaves.

The Gamma’s small size and low power may give the impression that it doesn’t come to much on the battlefield, but Northrop Grumman’s design makes the Gamma “chainable." That is, individual Gamma units can be linked together to combine their individually weak lasers into one extremely powerful, high-quality beam. By linking together the slab laser elements from several Gamma units, a laser of 100 kilowatts, the lower threshold for a battlefield laser, that weighs in at 1.5 (1.4 tonnes) tons and requires one megawatt of power to operate, is possible.

A view of how the Firestrike laser system can be scaled
A view of how the Firestrike laser system can be scaled

One and a half tons seems pretty heavy for a weapon, but mounted in an armored vehicle, a warship or at a land base, it’s fairly light. The Gamma is also an improvement on previous iterations of the Firestrike system in that the laser is much simpler and more rugged with fewer components and new mounts that greatly reduce vibration.

The tests carried out at the Redondo Beach laboratory consisted of firing the Gamma laser at the skin of a surplus BQM-7 drone and other components at short range, under conditions that simulated a full-scale combat laser operating at a range of several miles. "The Gamma laser was tested at a beam quality of 1.4, which beat the design goal of 1.5, and we expect it to keep improving," said Dan Wildt, vice president, directed energy systems, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "A perfect beam quality is 1. Owing to its excellent beam quality, the 13.3 kilowatt Gamma is also brighter than its design goal, meaning it can put more power on target at range.”

As far as applications of the Gamma laser and the Firestrike line in general, Wildt said, "The Firestrike laser, announced in 2008, forms the backbone near-term laser weapon systems from Northrop Grumman. Combined with advanced electro optical and/or infrared sensors, Firestrike line replaceable units and their subsystems can provide military services with active defense, offensive precision strike and enhanced situational awareness capabilities, all in the same weapon system."

Given the Pentagon’s continuing interest in lasers and the increasing need to develop defenses against new, faster missiles of all grades, it appears as if the age of the laser weapon is fast approaching.

One of the Firestrike tests can be seen in the video below.

Source: Northrop Grumman

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy

This heralds the end of the ICBM which is good, but the major manufacturer of silicon and gallalium arsenide crystals is China which is bad. The US has created the technology only to lose it in 5 years time to another country who will make it cheaper and mass produce it from stolen data and reverse enginering, just like the Manhattan project.

Sometimes it is better as a successful black project that stays black, one that we all believe to be a failure. After all this technology automaticaly also creates the worlds most powerful LIDAR, making all current stealth aircraft obsolete. The F35, B2 and F22 looked viable until today.

14th May, 2012 @ 01:11 pm PDT

LIDAR is good for fire control and docking maneuvers but it does not work well for general surveillance.

14th May, 2012 @ 06:00 pm PDT

from my point of view; they didn't seem to address the energy loss in the system, i.e. 1 megawatt to produce 100 kw = 900 kw energy loss. to where? can they use the 900 kw to power a vehicle? or do they have to get rid of it? 10% efficiency is lousy.

15th May, 2012 @ 09:32 am PDT

Re; Slowburn

That is nothing to do with Lidar's ability to paint a target but bad conceptual programming in processing data return.

15th May, 2012 @ 10:43 am PDT

re; L1ma

It has to do with trying to light up the whole sky with a laser. Go into a large dark room and try to find a 1cm square of tape on the walls and ceiling using only a laser pointer as a flashlight.

15th May, 2012 @ 11:15 pm PDT

Re; Slowburn

I work with raster line scanning and pattern recognition. I could find a nanometer dust pattern on that ceiling and recognise it to a 50% or less probability and I am currently only one of 2 people who could, the first is Professor Bill Lionheart who wrote a software scanner used in xray scanning, I have a European and American patent pending for the only viable working logic circuit in micro electronics.

There is no practical limit to the size of the light collector, or the CCD array. We are now at 28 feet reflectors and 3.2 gigapixel ccd, with ground based LIDAR we have also access to real time supecomputer processing. The whole sky is no longer the limit, there were never any to begin with.

16th May, 2012 @ 09:53 am PDT

Notarichman: Lasers are notoriously inefficient. They all produce much more heat than light. 10% efficiency really isn't bad, especially when scaled up.

Some types of lasers are only 0.1% efficient.

Jon A.
16th May, 2012 @ 12:08 pm PDT

re; L1ma

It is not that it can not be done. It is that you are making a more complex system that won't do the job any better, but will require more power. There are easier ways to defeat stealth systems as well.

17th May, 2012 @ 06:15 pm PDT

Re; Slowburn.

"It is that you are making a more complex system that won't do the job any better"

My pattern recognition circuit is 8 bit, it does not require a processor but takes its data directly from a bitmap - the CCD chip. I do not need LIDAR to use it, any data which needs pattern recognition will do. 8 bit means any value from 0 - 255, I have a circuit with less power than a pocket calculator from 1980 doing the same job as Bill lionharts 3D xray scanner which is software based, it cannot get any simpler.

"There are easier ways to defeat stealth systems as well"

That is all covered in making the object harder to see by reducing its RCS return and heat signature, however stealth is useless against light. This is a weapon that can both illuminate and kill, which was the original death ray concept with radar. To hide you would have to absorb 100 % of light from infrared to the visible spectrum without having detection devices which would inevitably give a return signal from backscatter.

This would mean a return to nap of the earth flying - now in cloud against LIDAR, they are therefore again in the 10000 ft groundfire danger zone and weather restricted. The easiest way to defeat a stealth warplane is a rifle round from a sqauddie as it flies over his head.

18th May, 2012 @ 09:38 am PDT

Re; Slowburn

I am also pretty tired of you never providing content, but always demanding yet more proof to convince Slowburn, in all your posts. We do not provide comment here to make you look good as you tire us out letting you have the last word.

Answer some questions youself

"It is not that it can not be done. It is that you are making a more complex system that won't do the job any better, but will require more power. There are easier ways to defeat stealth systems as well. "

1. In what way is the system more complex - it is identical in operation to Radar - a little help.


2. How do you know and by what values in wattage please is a LADAR less efficient than the equivalent RADAR. Remember that LIDAR only is absorbed in the Infra red spectrum in the Earths atmosphere, in what way is a high definition visable light LIDAR CCD reciever less capable as a collector of information as a longer wavelength radio and microwave receiver of equivalent size.

"LIDAR is good for fire control and docking maneuvers but it does not work well for general surveillance."

(With eye safe IR - Firstrike by definition is not going to be absorbed by the atmosphere) . More help



There is a vast difference between giving opinion and just being obnoxious for the sake of it. You are again adding to these are blog posts without providing sources for your own brand of knowledge.

18th May, 2012 @ 01:49 pm PDT

re; L1ma

Could your laser temporarily or permanently blind pilots?

How well does your laser penetrate through dust and clouds?

How long does it take to make a full scan to find a 1m square at 250km from sea level to 26,000m altitude?

If you had to absorb 100% of the light from laser to defeat system you would not need the laser in the first place. You could just watch for the heat from aerodynamic heating of the airframe and exhaust heat.

18th May, 2012 @ 10:34 pm PDT

re; L1ma

Granted both radar and lidar both send out a signal and listen for it to return but a laser beam does not expand at the rate that the area in a given direction does where as a radio transmission does. Therefor it will take numerous repeated passes with a lidar to cover the same area as a single pass with a radar.

Using 150,000 points per second, for 1m resolution coverage for an cylinder of airspace 500km in diameter and 26,000m high with the lidar in the center it will take over 75 hours to make one scan of the outer wall, longer if you want full internal coverage as well. That is not good general surveillance.

21st May, 2012 @ 12:35 am PDT

Re Slowburn;

In war there is no safe, this is a weapon which is designed to kill. There will be casualties from blindness to anyone who receives exposure, the current generation of IR lasers will blind you if you are within a 1/3rd distance of operational maximum.

No LIDAR can penetrate clouds, I mentioned cloud cover earlier.

You can either be invisible to radar or light but not both. Coatings that absorb light frequencys are both heavy, and emit heat and/or contain electrical elements which reflect radar. Some of the more interesting have chameleon properties which minic colour from the opposite side of the object, but this does not stop monochromatic illumination.

When you are facing the type of weapon which needs to be shot down by lasers you would be prepared to evacuate your citizens for a period, you have already forgotten such a weapon would destroy all the opponents airforce within days. Mounted on an Airship it would be doing this over the opponents territory, it is up to your conscience to warn the opponent citizens of its approach.

The maximum ceiling procludes over 25000 feet of altitude to scan, at this height it can scan 194 miles or 312 Km radius of the Earths visible surface.

To scan a circle of 305660.16 km2 or your 194 mile radius visible Earth at a height of 25000 feet would take a 1290 * 900 CCD element with a resolution of 1m2 at 100Hz 26.32731/100 = 0.2632731 seconds.

Our 3.2 gigapixel CCD element with a resolution of 1m2 at 100Hz would take 0.00955188/100 = 0.0000955188 seconds.

Our lazing element only has to broadcast a pulse stagger sequence at 100hz it is pefectly possible to use a diffuser and spinning mirror deflector to split the 30Kw beam 4 times and have a 7.2Kw 100hz lasing beam for 4 Axis.

There is nothing stopping the laser or the detector from being rotated every few seconds to scan the horizon and 1 30Kw laser can operate in the same way as a radar in track while scan mode reducing output in scan and illuminating a target in a high denfinition scan.

The range of the detector CCD depends upon its sensitivity to light and the amount of light collected. Laser light is polarized and easily distinguishable from background light frequencys which can be deducted from the scan. We are only looking for the time of return from a specific light pulse of known wavelength (Total Sequence Period).

21st May, 2012 @ 12:15 pm PDT

re; L1ma

So you are now agreeing that lidar is not good for general surveillance. Obviously a weapon that can blow your head off is not eye safe. You are the one that brought up lidar with a usage that implied general surveillance.

22nd May, 2012 @ 10:52 am PDT

So wouldn't something as simple as a front-surface mirror defeat this weapon? I'm thinking you just need to polish up your ICBM or put on some snazzy mirrored glasses to be 'safe'. I suppose it would be a little tricky to make the bottom of your airframe flat and shiny, but the 117 aint far from it.

Matthew Bailey
28th June, 2012 @ 11:38 am PDT

Re; Matthew Bailey

It would in some instances however if it reflects 99% of the incoming light from an ICBM the 1 % left is enough to puncture a 0.5 mm thick aluminium rocket body with a continuous beam over time. It was already thought of in the early 80's as a way to defeat the Star Wars system. Of course those lasers were not capable of being stacked, if there are ICBMs with this defense then the likelyhood is the system would have multiple lasers - in or near orbit with multiple lasing vehicles.

Refective coatings are a valid defence, as is smoke generation as well as rotation to spread the beams energy. Perhaps the future generation of ICBMs will have hydrogen fuel passed through the skin of the rocket as well for active cooling.

11th July, 2012 @ 09:20 am PDT
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