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Fridge-sized war raygun for US bombers gets $40m

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A long-running US military project aimed at producing a "refrigerator sized" laser raygun capable of being mounted on US combat aircraft has received further funding of just under $40m.

Concept graphic showings the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) in action. Credit: DARPA

The raygun bomber force knew how to handle the surprisingly aggressive and heavily armed tree people

In a federal announcement issued on Tuesday, famous crazytech company General Atomics was awarded a $39,833,499 contract for "High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) Phase 4, Demonstration Laser Weapon System".

The money comes, of course, from DARPA: the US government boffins most likely to mutter things like "They said I was mad – MAAD. Me!"... "Narrow-minded, blinkered fools!" and "You'll all be very sorry". DARPA wants the HELLADS programme to produce a directed-energy weapon of war-grade power (say 150 kilowatts) and weighing no more than 750kg, light enough to put onto a US combat jet. Existing lasers are so heavy that they require at least a cargo plane or a monster jumbo to carry them.

Previously, when issuing earlier HELLADS contracts to General Atomics and competitor Textron, DARPA spoke of getting the eventual "refrigerator sized" laser onto a "tactical" aircraft, which would normally mean a jet fighter. If it really met the size and weight requirements that would be feasible, but if, as seems likely, it were a bit bigger and heavier a larger strategic bomber such as the supersonic B-1B Lancer or the B-2 stealth bomber might be in order. Certainly the DARPA project graphics seem to bear this idea out. Bombers are regarded as much more combat-worthy than lumbering cargo haulers and jumbos, so this would still offer a way of getting the HELL-ray into a battle.

That said, if the HELL was truly an ADS and could shoot down missiles with ease, there might be no great need for high speed or manoeuvrability. And a laser-armed aircraft might also furnish an invulnerable umbrella for ground forces, sweeping the skies of enemy artillery shells, mortar bombs etc.

This week's award would seem to indicate that General Atomics, having seen off Textron, now has the go-ahead to build an actual demonstrator that might be of such a level of readiness as to be passed on to one or more of the US fighting services for development.

General Atomics has previously announced successful work on phase change heatsink technology, critical to address the great snag of all rayguns: the fact that they tend to release more energy inside themselves in the form of waste heat than they send down the beam. This should mean that the demonstrator will not melt, explode or set fire to itself as soon as it is turned on. ®

Updated to Add

DARPA has issued a full explanation of the HELLADS project contract history and reasons for proceeding with General Atomics here in pdf.

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