The United States Army is developing a powerful new laser weapon capable of vaporizing its targets and disrupting enemy tech signals. It is expected to be about a million times more powerful than any other laser weapon in use to date.
Current high-energy laser (HEL) weapon systems fire a continuous beam until a target melts or catches fire, but the new “Tactical Ultrashort Pulsed Laser (UPSL) for Army Platforms” will emit short, pulse-like bursts that rely on low energy. Curiously, it will look more like laser rifles in science fiction movies than the models engineers have designed in the past.
The new system is being developed to reach a terawatt for a brief 200 femtoseconds, which is one quadrillionth of a second, compared to a maximum of 150 kilowatts for previous systems. It fires incredibly short pulses – between 20 and 50 each second – for a total rated power of 20 to 50 watts, about 10 times more than an LED bulb. Such powerful ultrashort lasers are already being used in laboratories and factories, but the US military wants a compact and rugged version that can be aimed at distant targets.
Unlike normal lasers, which spread out over a long distance, ultrashort pulses can be shaped into self-focused light pulses that turn the air itself in a lens and keep its intensity intact. The rapid rise in temperature from the ultrashort pulse would vaporize the surface of a target rather than melt it, a technique used industrially for drilling precise holes in metal.
The impact of a laser pulse on a metallic object could also generate a strong functional electromagnetic pulse (EMP). When it hits a metal target, the laser pulse accelerates electrons rapidly that are strong enough to disrupt nearby electronics.
The Tactical Ultrashort Pulsed Laser will be able to be employed as a standalone system or integrated onboard ground vehicles, ships, and aircraft. Such laser weapons are extremely useful when combating fast-moving, small drones or missiles, according to New Scientist. And against human enemies, they can cause a variety of injuries – from mild skin irritation to permanent blindness.
According to a brief on the Small Business Innovation Research website, the goal is to develop an ultrashort pulse laser (USPL) system with sufficient SWaP (size, weight, and power) and ruggedization for use on Army relevant platforms.
The first prototype of the Tactical Ultrashort Pulsed Laser for Army Platforms will be unveiled in August 2022. The US ground forces will then decide whether to continue developing the weapon further.