How do laser weapons work? What to know about the US Army's latest tool

Lockheed Martin delivered to the U.S. DoD the most powerful laser weapon ever built.
Christopher McFadden
Laser weapons like Lockheed Martin's new 300-kW are incredibly potent.
Laser weapons, like Lockheed Martin's new 300-kW one, are incredibly potent.

Lockheed Martin 

Back in September of 2022, Lockheed Martin unveiled its 300-kW-class electric laser that can be used for tactical purposes. Delivered to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research & Engineering (OUSDR&E), this is the most powerful laser that Lockheed Martin has made.

This 300 kW-class laser is ready to be used in U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) demonstration programs, such as the Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) laser weapon system used by the U.S. Army.

As part of the High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative (HELSI), the OUSDR&E chose Lockheed Martin in 2019 to take their spectral beam combined high energy laser design to the 300 kW-class level.

“Lockheed Martin increased the power and efficiency and reduced the weight and volume of continuous-wave high energy lasers, which reduces the risk for future fielding efforts of high power laser weapon systems,” said Rick Cordaro, vice president of Lockheed Martin Advanced Product Solutions.

The HELSI laser will support Army IFPC-HEL demonstrations at some point in 2022.

This HELSI milestone shows that Lockheed Martin is committed to security in the 21st century, they say, by making new technologies that improve speed, agility, and mission solutions to ensure that the U.S. and its allies are always ready.

Lockheed Martin's 300 kW-class high-energy laser was designed and built with the help of its Washington State and New York teams. The team has been studying, making, developing, and using electromagnetic radiation to make 21st-century security solutions for 40 years.

What is a laser weapon?

Practical laser beams for the defense often fall into one of two categories: spectrum beams, a mixture of fiber lasers similar to what one may see in fiber communications, or distributed gain, a series of slabs through which energy is projected serially—initially created for industrial cutting and welding, fiber lasers.

These are the two main distinctions, though there are many alternative ways to categorize the components.

The more general category, "directed energy," which can include lasers, is "high-energy weaponry." It may also refer to electromagnetic weaponry, which some people refer to as RF and microwave sources employed as weapons.

These are effective when used non-lethally against individuals.

A hypothetical "particle beam" and sound-based weapons are examples of high-energy weaponry. Although there is significant speculation on this subject overall, there are some indications that laser guns may become more widely used.

How do laser weapons work?

Lockheed Martin's device is an example of a "Spectrally Beam Combined fiber laser," which is compact, powerful, and incredibly accurate. They can be powered via batteries, generators, or other existing power sources.

Such weapons concentrate a stream of many kilowatt fiber lasers into a single high-quality beam using beam-control optics and software algorithms.

The energy can be modified to compensate for atmospheric distortions as it passes through mirrors, lenses, and windows to reach its destination. The beam is capable of destroying a rubber boat, destroying a truck engine, and bringing down a drone without encountering the usual ballistic obstacles of gravity and wind.

And all this while remaining completely hidden if need be.

“You can’t actually see the laser light, it’s invisible," explains Sarah Reeves, Vice President of Missile Defense Programs at Lockheed Martin.

"The enemy wouldn’t know where the laser is coming from, they wouldn’t be able to target back. Of course, lasers travel at the speed of light,” she added.

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