If you've ever gone outside on a foggy night and shined a laser pointer about, you’ve seen two things: how flashy a raygun it makes, and the problem laser weapons face in such conditions as fog and rain scatters the energy that should be destroying missiles. However, in recent tests at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Boeing and the US Army have shown that their High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) is capable of successfully locking onto and taking out targets in very laser-unfriendly foggy, rainy, and windy maritime conditions.
The HEL-MD is the US Army's first mobile, high-energy laser, Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) platform. It consists of a 10-kW high-energy laser mounted on an Oshkosh tactical vehicle and is capable of tracking and engaging (a polite way to say blasting out of the sky) a variety of targets.
It has already undergone extensive testing at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico in 2013 and at Eglin earlier this year, and now Boeing says that it has managed to engage 150 aerial targets. And not just in the clear, sunny skies of New Mexico, but in the windy, rainy, and foggy conditions in Florida that whould normally make for a bad day for the lasers. But the HEL-MD still managed to deal with its targets, including 60 mm mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Exactly how this was done is something that Boeing is keeping close to its chest, but it’s likely that it involves using a reference laser beam to probe through, for example, the fog so that computers could analyze how the atmospheric conditions were distorting the laser. The optics in the HEL-MD would then refocus the weapon beam, so the distortion, instead of spreading it or bending it off course, puts it back into the right shape.
According to Boeing, the next step for the HEL-MD is to boost the power by swapping out the 10-kW laser with a 50- or 60-kW version as part of a demonstration of how well the laser weapon does against other rocket, artillery, mortar and UAV targets.
"With capabilities like HEL MD, Boeing is demonstrating that directed energy technologies can augment existing kinetic strike weapons and offer a significant reduction in cost per engagement," says Dave DeYoung, Boeing Directed Energy Systems director. "With only the cost of diesel fuel, the laser system can fire repeatedly without expending valuable munitions or additional manpower."