Northrop Grumman unveils mini laser weapon
by Garth Meyer
You will not be taking this item camping next weekend. Nor are you allowed to know much about it. Other than it was developed by Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach for the U.S. Government and delivered Aug. 24.
It shoots lasers for use in warfare. A weapon at the speed of light.
“Due to the critical nature of the technology, certain information regarding Phantom will continue to be protected by enhanced security measures,” said Carri Karuhn, Northrop Grumman spokesperson, in a statement to Easy Reader. “We are unable to speak to specifics at this time.”
This much is certain – the company has delivered a miniaturized high-energy laser device “ruggedized for field use,” to “allow for rapid placement in tactical situations,” according to the August announcement.
Weighing under 200 pounds, and about the size of a mini-refrigerator, the 10 kilowatt weapon features technology that’s been touted as an aid to systems like Israel’s Iron Dome – though its energy needs, cooling time and vulnerability to weather have kept it largely in development.
This latest version came out of a $72 million contract from the Department of Defense in 2021 to demonstrate a high-energy laser prototype.
A year into the project, Northrop Grumman finished a preliminary design review; with expandable architecture to more than a megawatt.
“This is an important step in the ability to combine high-power laser beams into a single beam that can be scaled for maximum power,” Robert Fleming said after the review, in a company release. Fleming is Northrop Grumman’s vice president and general manager, strategic space systems.
Later in 2022, the company tested a prototype at higher and higher powers.
Aside from being faster than other weapons, a laser’s “ammunition” is nothing but a basic power source — an electrical outlet or a generator.
The lasers are said to have the capability to defeat drones, rockets, mortars, artillery, fast-attack boats, and up to cruise missiles.
“Northrop Grumman is using its expertise in directed energy to deliver an extremely compact, lightweight and efficient laser for the warfighter,” Fleming said.
Might he say anything further? How many South Bay employees worked on it? Have lasers been used in combat by the U.S. military? By any military?
“We cannot answer any additional details specific to Phantom,” said spokesperson Karuhn, referring to its product name. ”The details are not available for release currently due to the critical nature of this technology.”
Steve Trimble, defense editor for Aviation Week, told Easy Reader the U.S. Navy has at least three ships equipped with laser weapons, which have been operational in combat zones.
According to some reports, Israel used lasers on Oct. 7 as part of its experimental “Iron Beam,” which went through successful tests last year.
Its concept was revealed in 2014 at the Singapore Air Show.
Israeli defense company Elbit Systems has demonstrated a small airborne laser shooting down a drone.
A 100-kilowatt laser can burn a hole in a two-inch plate of steel, from more than a kilometer away – invisibly, without noise.
Time starts to bring vulnerability in longer-range targets.
“It could take a second or two to burn a hole in a missile traveling 800 feet per second. There are a few engineering challenges implied there,” Trimble said. “You need a fire control system that can be integrated on a moving turret, and you need to generate a high-power beam for a second or two without overheating the generator or the optics of the laser.”
Another feature of lasers is they have settings, as opposed to all-or-nothing. A soldier can shoot a laser at half-power, a fraction of power or full bore; in contrast to just fire it, or don’t fire it.
Depending on the setting, a laser may only scramble a sensor, damage it, or blow up a whole target.
Northrop Grumman’s lasers are designed for action on land, at sea and in the air, for surveillance and reconnaissance. Its Laser Weapon System Demonstrator was tested in 2019 on the USS Portland. Operated by Navy sailors, it tracked and destroyed unmanned test targets.
All of this is part of a $1 billion annual Department of Defense budget for directed energy weapons.
Though use of high-energy lasers has previously been limited to lab demonstrations, today Northrop Grumman and other entities maintain that they are ready for real-world environments.
To others, the jury is still out.
“The industry traditionally has not been great about acknowledging its limitations,” Trimble said. “Borne over years of overpromising and under-delivering. It’s grown by leaps and bounds, but over a long time at tremendous cost. Tens of billions of dollars in R & D in the U.S. alone.”
When Northrop Grumman first produced high-energy lasers in the 1970s, the beam was made of chemicals (such as chlorine, oxygen and iodine). Electric lasers followed and then fiber.
Over decades, the laser equipment and its abilities got better – from beam combination, improved tracking and targeting, scalable subsystems and ultimately, miniaturized systems.
While further information on the Phantom is limited, two Redondo Beach Northrop Grumman representatives did give an interview in June to Laser Focus World magazine.
“(Our) lasers are constantly evolving. We’re constantly asking: what’s next?” said Matt Keller, Northrop Grumman director of directed energy. “How can we do the mission more effectively, scale to higher efficiency, power, reliability, and miniaturize not only the laser and beam control but the power source and the required cooling?”
How long is this cooling time?
“I wish I knew, it’s all classified,” Trimble said. “(But) lasers run out of capacity to fire at a certain point, which isn’t very long. It could shoot down 20 rockets, but then need cooling, while the 21st comes in.”
A 24-year veteran of Aviation Week, Trimble explained that lasers are most useful against “swarm attacks” by dozens of rockets, artillery shells, mortars, drones and possibly missiles.
Other options for this kind of defense is a Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) or Israel’s Iron Dome.
Phalanx is an automated Gatling gun – firing hundreds or thousands of bullets at an incoming threat. Iron Dome shoots a precision-guided missile to take it out.
“In theory, a high-energy laser can be better, because it fires at the speed of light, and is energy-limited but not magazine-limited, as long as the system has sufficient cooling,” Trimble said. “And it doesn’t have any projectiles that will land somewhere and potentially cause collateral damage on the ground. Although, they may need to be a bit careful not to accidentally hit aircraft flying by if they miss.”
For drawbacks, Trimble cites lasers’ requirement of an “enormous” amount of energy, wasting two kilowatts for every one that makes up the beam.
Also, weather can be a problem – rain, clouds, haze, fog and/or smoke limit a laser’s effectiveness.
“(Weather) reduces how much energy you can put on a target,” Trimble said.
As for Iron Dome, when it is under fire from thousands of rockets, “You only have so many (missile) batteries, you only have so much time. It’s nice to have a backup in that case.”
What about Ukraine?
“Lasers are a lot easier to use in the Mideast. The weather is better.”
If lasers engage to a significant degree, it brings another issue.
“It’ll become one of the (most sought after) targets if effective,” Trimble said.
Though it’s small, hiding it is a problem because of heat.
“Anything that generates a massive thermal signature is difficult to conceal on a modern battlefield,” Trimble said. “And high-energy lasers, by definition, would be among the hottest objects you could have.”
Now that the Phantom is delivered, if and how much it may get used by the U.S. military is yet to be seen, but it could be soon.
“In the next year or two, and to some extent now, they’re useful as a backup,” Trimble said. “It can be a useful tool, but it’s exotic.”
“Directed energy is a critical capability that must be further developed to keep the nation ahead of emerging threats,” Keller told Laser Focus World. “High-energy lasers offer an affordable solution to these growing threats.” ER