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Inside the Air Force’s Laser Lab

by jason on December 22, 2005

I love the bit in Bond films where 007 goes round Qs laboratory checking out the latest top-secret gadgets. Thats why I enjoyed talking to Capt.Wegner and his colleagues at ScorpWorks, source of a variety of laser weapons and other one-of-a-kind devices.
ACCM.jpgThe ScorpWorks is the Air Force Research Laboratorys in-house development team for laser system prototypes. Although it has existed since 1992, they have shunned publicity until this year. A laser weapon does not need to convert the target into smoking rubble: they are much more versatile than that.
The Laser AirCraft CounterMeasures (ACCM), which I detail in this week’s New Scientist, is a nonlethal coaxial laser that sits alongside a helicopter door gun. It dazzles the target, preventing them from firing accurately and providing protection for the helicopter, but without risking civilian casualties.
Its more than a dazzler. Experience with the Saber 203 laser dazzler in Somalia showed that it was too low-powered to affect vision, but anyone illuminated beat a hasty retreat as they knew a weapon was being aimed at them. The ACCM should have a similar effect, scattering potential threats on the ground and leaving only the truly dangerous ones — and the 4,000 rpm minigun should deal with them.
The PHaSR laser-dazzling rifle unveiled a few weeks ago is similar (and not a hoax). In a riot-control situation, the idea is that lighting people up with this portable laser will separate peaceful protesters from the stone-throwers. The PhaSRs dual-wavelength laser will also make countermeasures difficult, and Capt. Wegner points out that the end product will probably be very different to the bulky prototype.
The PHaSR is a relative of the Portable Efficient Laser Testbed (PELT). This is another riot-control weapon, but one that works by heat “the first man-portable heat compliance weapon of its kind” Take a close look at the picture of PELT on page 52 here and you’ll see a signature Scorpion logo a rare visible sign of ScorpWorks handiwork.
Elsewhere they’ve been utilizing the laser as a sensor. By picking up the reflections back from the human eye, invisible laser sensors can detect people looking at them — similar to the way animal eyes light up when you shine a flashlight on them. A sniper detection system is in the works.
Even more sophisticated is BOSS, the Battlefield Optical Surveillance System. This is a vehicle-mounted setup which uses retro-reflection and a number of other technologies to spot targets in pitch darkness. It can be locate, identify and invisibly designate targets, so they wont even know they’ve been spotted until a laser-guided weapon hits (and probably not even then). Exactly how far advanced BOSS or its successors are is not known.
The ScorpWorks name is a deliberate echo of Lockheeds famous Skunk Works, renowned for producing world-beating aircraft like the F-117 stealth fighter and SR-71 Blackbird on time and within budget, a feat achieved following a set of bureaucracy-busting rules laid down by the legendary Kelly Johnson.
ScorpWorks reckon that many projects get completed within two years and with prototypes built for less than $300k. At that price you could get about 20,000 different projects for the price of one Airborne Laser.
The Skunk Works is famous for the many black programs that originated there, and you do get the impression with ScorpWorks that what they have revealed is the tip of the iceberg. We know their customers include Special Operations Command, Air Force, Marines, DARPA and the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, but we dont know what they bought. Even their unclassified programs can only be discussed in broad terms. If they told me more, theyd probably have to kill me but I bet theyd use a really impressive laser.
David Hambling

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

pedestrian December 26, 2005 at 8:27 am

Sweet sweet dreamland. I love it.

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Mc@Kirtland December 30, 2005 at 5:01 pm

Sounds like they based a lot of their effort on the work done at Kirtland in Albuquerque, NM.

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David Hambling January 20, 2006 at 10:29 am

As it says in the NewSci piece -
“The ACCM is being developed at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico…” – that’s where ScorpWorks is!

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Daniel February 4, 2006 at 1:05 am

Anybody can get hold of a Jane’s Weapons and find the United States Government spent 25 years developing a LASER TANK actually a modified APC carrying generators to power an infra red LASER.
THE WEAPON IS FULLY DEVELOPED AND IN THE ARSENAL.
Smaller rayguns are deployed on Naval ships the best known is the Ferranti 630 which can put 750W on a bullet sized target and has a pulse rate of fire indicating the target is vapourized. It is categorized as an ANTI SPACE WEAPON. To make a lethal weapon you use ultraviolet to make air conductive and send an electric charge or at low power to stun, British Police have them, as usual I wonder if Americans can read. Most military and other technology predates war secrecy from the 1918-39 peace when all Scientists of all nations actually had a chat with each other. You keep them stuck in secret boxes and they DUPLICATE RESEARCH AND WASTE TIME.You get a hundred Scientists from the same Professor and they all do the same research as they are not supposed to chat with each other. You pay a hundred times for the same discovery. This madness and waste typifies the military mind . It is better to encourage project proliferations and keep everybody knowing where the front of research is and trying to get ahead.
This creates a massive staffing problem for espionage as the knowledge pours out in torrents and the applications are frequently developed by laypersons as innovation not research. Hence by the time anybody knows what is going on it is too late. Swaddling reseaarch under so called secrecy means you pay too much to remain obsolete. Check out a Jane’s and you will find the answers have been found by the British already. A fireball projector does not need a super powerful LASER just a moderately good air ionizer you connect to a homopolar generator equivalent to say one GigaFarad then by locking on to target with a dual beam, one being Earth connected you blow the Bogey to Kingdom Come. This is logical. To use the LASER to do the whole job is illogical. Air can work with you. It does not have to only block transmission. Ferranti likely has all you need on the shelves.

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Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry August 31, 2007 at 4:00 pm

Just another popgun-tech ‘wikitedia’ website:
1. You don’t need a GF to disperse personnel– just a neural-code stream that projects ‘burn’ through an LPL-ionized airpath. (cf those old stimulated-color spinning B&W-wheels; Even Star Trek The Classic had ‘like’ neural-neutralizers.)
2. Multi-Interferometry-Laser (MIL) chews like a drill-bit rather than bang-bang-slow pile-driver.
3. Night-Blinding-Laser (NBL) doesn’t even damage vision:– just strobes spots-and-streaks into the eyes. (cf Try finding a blinking beacon at night: it’s all-over-the-place as the eyes look-about).
Well, On-with my legal-drama screenplaywriting…
Ray.

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