The battlefield of the future recently came a step closer, as a Lockheed Martin laser weapon took out a truck in a field test. The 30-kW fiber laser weapon system was fired at a small truck mounted on a test platform, the laser beam disabled the running engine and drivetrain within seconds.

The recent field test used Lockheed's Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) ground-based prototype, single-mode laser, which is based on the company's Area Defense Anti-Munitions (ADAM) laser weapon system. It incorporates the 30-kW Accelerated Laser Demonstration Initiative (ALADIN) fiber laser developed by Lockheed.

ATHENA uses a process that the company calls Spectrum Beam Combining. Though laser weapons have been successfully tested in the past, Lockheed says that even though such systems could acquire, track, and destroy targets, they lack practicality as a tactical weapon because the inefficient nature of the lasers resulted in them being too large, needing too much power, and being difficult to cool.

A previous Lockheed laser test taking out a small boat

Spectrum Beam Combining overcomes these limitations by using fiber laser modules where the active gain medium consists of an optical fiber doped with a rare-earth element such as erbium, ytterbium, neodymium, or others. The optical fibers are flexible, so the laser can be thousands of meters long for greater gain, while taking up very little space because it can be coiled like a rope. The large surface-to-volume ratio means that it's easy to cool. In addition, fiber laser are very durable and project a high-quality beam using 50 percent less electricity than an equivalent solid-state laser.

According to Breaking Defense, Lockheed senior fellow Rob Afzal says that the limit to the size of laser weapons is economic rather than technological and that a plus 500-kW laser is entirely feasible, which would be powerful enough to take out a cruise missile in flight.

"Fiber-optic lasers are revolutionizing directed energy systems," says Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin chief technology officer. "We are investing in every component of the system – from the optics and beam control to the laser itself – to drive size, weight and power efficiencies. This test represents the next step to providing lightweight and rugged laser weapon systems for military aircraft, helicopters, ships and trucks."

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