According to an article in Military & Aerospace Electronics, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has given a total of $26 million in contracts to two U.S. defense companies to research a more efficient anti-missile defense system.
Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems division in Redondo Beach, CA will receive $14.6 million while Lockheed Martin's Mission Systems and Training division in Akron, OH will receive $11.4 million as a part of Project Endurance. Both are engaged currently in the development of laser weapons that could successfully protect aircraft from missiles.
Project Endurance initially sprung out of DARPA's Excalibur program, an effort to reduce the size of optical laser arrays by at least 10 times, making it more feasible to load both manned and unmanned aircraft with a missile defense system.
The idea for a pod-mounted laser that can fit on a plane is hardly a new one. Boeing built a tricked-out 747-400 freighter plane that it called the Airborne Laser, which was sold for scrap last year.
At the time, researchers believed that a giant plane fitted with a megawatt laser could simply fly ovals around a combat zone and, with clever targeting, could render most ballistic missiles inert before they were fired. At-the-time Defense Secretary Robert Gates scrapped any plans the Air Force may have had to build a second one, saying "The [Airborne Laser] program has significant affordability and technology problems, and the program's proposed operational role is highly questionable."
Boeing's weapon design was a chemical iodine laser, or COIL, that was fired through the nose of the plane accompanied by two solid state lasers to lock on and control the beam. Here's a picture of what it looked like; the tracking laser is on top, while the larger laser is on the nose, charging up.
DARPA's latest designs are a bit smaller and less cumbersome by leaps and bounds. However, they are the first to admit that the size limitations are affecting the power output of their laser. By combining two different types of laser systems (diode lasers and fiber laser amplifiers), DARPA hopes to increase beam efficacy by between 30 and 50 percent.
"To produce a weapons-grade system, however," Excalibur program manager Joseph Mangano writes, "[the laser's] output power must be increased without introducing additional optical phase noise and modal instability." Basically, they won't be aiming for a Boeing-sized megawatt laser, but a couple hundred kilowatts might be enough to get the job done.[Main image via DARPA]