the Novel Electromagnetic Weapons Technologies Program. If the technology shows promise, it could ultimately
evolve into a program of its own, AFRL officials say.
Most laser weapons in development use solid-state tech-
nology, which provides a steady, consistent beam. A USPL
system, on the other hand, emits short pulses of light last-
ing about “a millionth of a billionth of a second,” which is
“pretty short,” says Don Shiffler, AFRL’s high-power elec-
tromagnetics core technology competency lead, a job title
he describes as “a mouthful.”
“An ultra-short pulse laser gives you a train of pulses.
Rather than having it stay on continuously, it gives you
small bursts of light,” Shiffler explains.
Shiffler and his boss, Kelly Hammett, chief engineer
of the AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate, share a passion for directed energy tech. Shiffler reveals that his
daughter’s thesis involves biophysics applications for USPL
AFRL officials are in the early phases of USPL research,
and in some ways, they have more questions than answers.
“One thing that’s well-known about ultra-short pulse lasers
is that when they interact with matter, say, a solid object,
they generate plasma,” Shiffler says.
Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter, along with gas, liquid and solid. “A good example of a
plasma is the gas in your fluorescent lightbulbs. Or the sun.
The sun’s a plasma,” he points out.
Generating plasma provides two effects. It produces light
and electromagnetic radiation, such as radio frequency or
microwave signals. In theory, a USPL could disrupt com-
munications, electronics or sensors rather than burning
through and destroying a target. “Basically, you would
propagate the laser from a ground- or air-based platform
onto a target. Upon the laser interacting with the target
material, you might produce some type of electromagnetic
energy that would cause an effect,” Hammett offers. “If
you’re trying to produce light, maybe you’re blinding or
spoofing the target. If you’re producing radio frequency
energy, maybe you’re causing some kind of electronics
Shiffler and Hammett allow that the technology may
be useful in countering laser weapons deployed by future
adversaries. “I don’t think we know. That’s something we
would have to look at,” Shiffler says. The purpose of the
research is to determine what effects the technology will
have and whether those effects will be useful on the battle-
field. “This is something far enough away from being used,
say, 10 or 20 years, that we’re really just in an exploratory
phase to figure out how we would use it,” Shiffler states.
Anyone who likes to see targets crash and burn may be
disappointed in USPLs. “If an ultra-short pulse laser interacts with material, it looks like you stuck a cigarette up
against it. It leaves a black spot. It’s not even really a burn
mark. Much to the dismay of some of the experimentalists,
I can wipe it off with my hands,” Shiffler states.
This is not the first time the military has developed laser
weapons, DeFatta points out. “We were shooting stuff
out of the sky as a service in the 1970s, but they were gas
dynamic lasers or chemical lasers, which have a logistical
trail that’s more difficult,” he says.
The former Airborne Laser program is perhaps the best
known chemical laser. Specifically, it was a chemical iodine
oxygen laser installed on a Boeing 747-400F. It was designed
to counter tactical ballistic missiles in the early boost phase of
launch. Although the system successfully shot down targets
during demonstrations, it was deemed too expensive and
impractical and lost funding.
Advances in solid-state technology, however, have brought
lasers to the cusp of reality. “We’re taking advantage of solid-
state technologies that 10 years ago were just a promise,”
Researchers still seek to understand the physics of USPL
technology, but that is not an issue for solid-state systems. “It’s
more engineering than physics right now,” DeFatta concludes.
contact: George I. Seffers, email@example.com
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