For years folks have touted lasers as the next big thing in high-tech weaponry. So-called directed-energy weapons might shoot down ballistic missiles, zap mortars and rockets before they hit your troops and even replace cannons aboard the latest fighter jets. But for all the hype, no one has quite gotten a military-grade laser to work. Old-style chemical lasers capable of truly destructive power rely on fuels that are just too volatile; solid-state lasers are still too weak to actually kill anything.
But Northrop Grumman remains bullish. And on January 16, the firm announced the opening of the world’s first full-service laser production plant in Redondo Beach, California. Here workers will build and test-run tactical lasers from 10 to 100 kilowatts in power, an order of magnitude short of the delicate megawatt-class laser that the company is building to shoot down ballistic missiles. The facility was built to support the Joint Solid-State Laser Program and will also produce hardware for the Tactical High-Energy Laser, or THEL, which aims to shoot down mortars and rockets.
“Laser weapons are really moving out of the laboratory onto the battlefield,” says vice president for lasers Mike McVey. That’s a bit of an overstatement. Just a couple directed-energy weapons -- THEL and Raytheon’s Laser Area Defense System -- have actually hit anything in tests. Everything else is a weapon only in theory.