Lasers are perhaps the most common form of Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) found in today’s militaries. Their popularity is due, in part, to their relative simplicity and their unparalleled effectiveness on the battlefield. Over the recent decades, as laser technology has continually improved, one type of laser has seemingly come out on top, the solid-state laser.
A solid-state laser is one that utilizes a solid mass, in place of a gas or liquid, as its gain medium. This solid mass is generally a crystal that has been artificially infused with rare earth ions and/or transition metals. Some examples of these solids commonly include materials such as neodymium, ytterbium, titanium, and chromium (1).
The benefits of using solid-state lasers, as opposed to liquid or gas lasers, are numerous. The first advantage being that solid-state lasers are far more economical to manufacture on a large scale than comparable liquid or gas mediums. The process of producing viable crystals is rather simple and inexpensive, meaning that mass production of solid-state lasers for militaries will be a viable option in the future. In addition, solid-state lasers are efficient in terms of their energy usage. Often times in gas lasers, much of the material is wasted, resulting in a drastic reduction in energy efficiency. By contrast, material is not wasted when using mediums that are solid at room temperature. Finally, solid-state lasers are able to function with either a pulsed or continuous wave output. This translates to a more diverse selection of options when weaponized (1).
The United States Military has certainly taken a major interest in solid-state lasers over the last ten years. A multitude of programs and weapon systems that use solid-state lasers are already in existence today. Some of those programs include LaWS, the Navy’s own solid-state laser that has been fitted onto ships in the Persian Gulf with great success (2). Another program is Northrop Grumman’s FIRESTRIKE laser weapon system, a modular weapon that can be outfitted onto a wide variety of vehicles for a different missions (3). Also, there are plans for solid-state lasers to be placed aboard the F-35 Lightning II, the United States Military’s newest joint strike fighter (4).
Expect to hear more about solid-state lasers over the coming years as countries besides the United States try their hand at Directed Energy Weapons.
(1) "Solid State Lasers." Electronics Engineering Notes, Lectures, Projects. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
(2) McCaney, Kevin. "Navy Cranks up the Power on Laser Weapon -- Defense Systems." Defense Systems. N.p., 28 June 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
(3) Szondy, David. "Northrop Grumman Tests New Laser Weapon." Northrop Grumman Tests New Laser Weapon. N.p., 14 May 2012. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
(4) Gallagher, Sean. "Marine Corps Wants to Put Lasers on F-35 (and Everything Else)." Ars Technica. N.p., 31 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 Oct. 2016.
Image: © Jordan Tan | Dreamstime.com - Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth multi-role joint strike fighter on display at Singapore Airshow 2012