Laser weapons developers 'riding the wave' created by Tesla, other battery innovators

Key Points
  • Advanced battery technology commonly found in electric cars is now getting leveraged to benefit the military's laser weapon development.
  • As lithium-ion batteries get smaller, cheaper and longer lasting, defense firms are leveraging the innovation with more efficient laser weapons.
  • Last week, Lockheed Martin won a contract to develop an airborne high-power laser weapon system for a tactical fighter jet.
A rendering of Lockheed Martin's directed energy laser weapon that counters drone swarms.
Source: Lockheed Martin

Advances made in automotive battery technology by Tesla and others are now being borrowed to help the Pentagon get high-power laser weapons that can kill everything from enemy drones to missiles.

The work on laser weapons underway includes an Air Force Research Laboratory contract awarded to Lockheed Martin last week to develop high-power fiber lasers that will be tested on a tactical fighter jet by 2021. The fighter jet demonstration project is part of the Air Force lab's so-called SHiELD or Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator program.

"You can power the laser like you can power the car off a battery system," said Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed, the nation's largest defense company. "We would use the same type of battery technology ... and the reason is you need to be able to deliver a lot of energy in a short period of time."

Indeed, efficient lithium-ion battery technology commonly found in electric cars is now getting leveraged to drive power generation and storage solutions for military laser applications. It allows lasers to achieve significant bursts of energy very quickly for incinerating enemy targets, just as a Tesla Model S driver could accelerate from 0 to 60 miles per hour in a matter of a few seconds.

"As the batteries get smaller, cheaper, have more power density, more reliable, we're just going to just have better power systems for the laser," said Afzal. "The battery technology is ahead of the laser weapon technology."

Some experts credit Tesla for helping bring a revolution in electric cars and lithium-ion battery technology, while also driving down battery costs and expanding the power storage market beyond cars. Even so, the Tesla brand competes with other lithium-ion battery suppliers, and research firm Technavio last year predicted the Chinese would surpass the U.S. in research and development spending on laser systems by 2022.

A Lockheed Martin ground-based fiber laser weapon, known as ATHENA, which burned through the truck engine during a test.
Source: Lockheed Martin

"It's funny how a lot of things that happened in the auto industry can filter over into new capabilities on most other technologies, and lasers is one of them," said Air Force lab's SHiELD's program manager Richard Bagnell.

Dan Goure, a former Pentagon official and now senior vice president of Virginia think-tank Lexington Institute, said the Lockheed contract to develop a laser for a fighter jet shows how far the research has come in terms of making laser weapons smaller.

In a release, Lockheed said this month its team will be "focused on developing a compact, high efficiency laser within challenging size, weight and power constraints." It also said the laser system would be "pod mounted on the tactical fighter jet."

'Elon Musk in camouflage'

Yet the challenge comes from the fact that directed-energy weapons — lasers — tend to draw significantly more power than an automotive battery would require. The airborne laser weapons are designed to store power to fire off dozens of shots but can also include a power recharge system much like a hybrid electric car.

"You may literally not have to be generating power per se on the airplane [for laser weapons]," said Goure. "You can have battery storage, kind of like Elon Musk in camouflage."

It's unclear if Musk's Tesla or its suppliers are providing battery storage systems to the defense contractors for laser weapons. Tesla declined comment for this story.

For its part, Lockheed says it doesn't use its own specialized battery technology for the lasers but one that's being developed for automobiles, aircraft and other applications.

'Riding the wave'

"We're riding the wave," said Afzal. "The battery advances are remarkable. We're going to utilize that."

Regardless, the military has been researching lethal lasers since the 1960s but in the past decade development has intensified with the focus on technologies that have more power, accuracy and reliability.

"One of the things we find in a lot of our systems — land, sea and air — is that we run out of shots particularly on the defense," said Goure. "You just run out of bullets or missiles. And if you have laser, it avoids having to reload."

For the Navy, a drone-killing laser weapon system was deployed a few years ago aboard the amphibious transport ship USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf, although the laser was removed from the ship last summer. In 2018, the Navy is expected to test a 150-kilowatt electric laser weapon. The high-energy laser weapon is being developed by Northrop Grumman to protect ships from drones, boats and enemy missiles.

The Army recently took delivery of a 60-kilowatt laser system from Lockheed that will be put on combat vehicles. Also, in August Lockheed did tests for the Army on a 30-kilowatt Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) laser weapon system that shot down five drones. ATHENA is so powerful it can burn a hole in truck from a mile away.

Experts point out that a decade ago, the solid-state laser technology was bigger than many of the combat vehicles.

"What's happened is a new type of electrically-driven laser technology has evolved in the last 10 years where we can build very high power lasers that are very electrically efficient," said Afzal. "The more efficient the laser you have, the less power you need to drive it."

Killing missiles

At the same time, automotive industry innovation means laser weapons today are lighter and more portable than legacy chemical iodine lasers that were once tested aboard Boeing's 747-400 jets for the Air Force.

Chemical lasers can pack a big punch in terms of firepower and shoot down ballistic missiles but are considered impractical and rely on large chemical tanks that can be hazardous in accidents.

Back in 2002, Boeing began testing chemical laser weapons on 747s in a program known as the YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed. The flying laser system was designed to shoot down enemy missiles but had mixed success, and the Pentagon pulled the plug on the $5 billion program in 2011.

"One of the problems with the chemical laser is that first of all they're too big and too heavy — and you have to carry the chemicals with you," said Afzal. "With an electric laser, your platform which is driving, sailing, flying around, usually has a power system that can recharge your battery back. But in a chemical laser, once the chemicals are gone you have to go back to the depot."

More recently, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency has indicated it wants to take another look at airborne laser weapons to kill enemy missiles but rather than use chemical lasers it plans to focus on electric solid-state laser technology.

In June, the agency put out a request for information with defense contractors for a drone equipped with a high-energy laser weapon system would be compact and designed to intercept missiles in the boost phase. That means the technology could one day possibly be used to bring down ballistic missiles fired by North Korea that are a threat to the U.S. or its allies.