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Northrop enters US Army monster raygun lorry race

If it flies, it fries ... maybe

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Northrop Grumman has won a $8m US Army contract to develop a beam control system demonstrator for a laser energy weapon which can be mounted on an enormous truck.

The Grumman demo kit will be in competition with a rival design to be developed by Boeing under a recent $7m contract.

The US Army's High Energy Laser Tactical Demonstrator (HEL TD) project is intended to produce a powerful raygun system which can be mounted on a mobile battlefield vehicle. The complete system is expected to be very heavy compared to most current weapons, so the plan is to put it on a massive 20 ton Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT).

The blaster lorry could be parked in army bases or camps of the future situated in hostile countries, where bombardments by insurgent or enemy rockets, artillery and mortars (RAM) might be expected. The hope is that laser beams striking at the speed of light could rapidly zap entire salvoes of incoming ordnance out of the sky before they hit.

Thus far, the only lasers powerful enough to blast or detonate things themselves are chemically-fuelled ones, as featured in the planned Airborne Laser ICBM-grilling jumbo jet. These weapons are seen by the Army as prohibitively heavy and their toxic fuels and waste products as unacceptably troublesome.

HEL TD is supposed to use a yet-to-be-developed electrically-powered solid state laser. Rayguns of this type are normally seen as too weak at present for use as weapons in their own right: though another US arms maker, Raytheon, claims to have achieved worthwhile results with existing kit.

For now, however, Boeing and Northrop Grumman will merely seek to show that beam controller hardware for future sky-sweeping lorry lasers is feasible.

Obviously it would be nice not to be rocketed and mortared all the time when overseas, and it's entirely possible that's all the US Army wants here.

But it's also possible to speculate that a beam which could detonate explosives packed within fairly robust containers like artillery shells - which must, after all, withstand a lot of heat and violence on firing - could also make jet fuel explode or burn if it were protected by only flimsy aluminium. HEL TD raygun lorries could shoot down aircraft as readily as RAM threats, then, at least in some cases. They might also be able to pick off air weapons such as missiles, or burn away the guidance kits on smart bombs.

All that could change the dynamics of the modern high-intensity, proper-warfare battlefield somewhat, making air forces rather less dominant than they tend to be at the moment and swinging the pendulum back in favour of heavy armoured ground forces. Which might explain the Army's recent fondness for laser weapons, in an era when many have lately questioned the relevance of heavy metal on the modern battlefield. The current need to have air superiority before embarking on a ground war could disappear or become irrelevant for troops protected by HEL TD raygun-vehicle fleets.

Of course, suitable lasers are nowhere near ready yet. It was just a thought. ®

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