A HIGH-powered, lightweight laser weapon that can be fitted to fighter aircraft to destroy missiles tens of kilometres away has been designed by DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US.

Until now, lasers powerful enough to blow up missiles have been so big they can only be carried by large aircraft such as jumbo jets. For example, the Airborne Laser being developed by the US’s Missile Defense Agency is designed to fit onto a Boeing 747 freighter aircraft to track and destroy ballistic missiles during their boost phase, although the weapon has yet to undergo flight tests.

But now DARPA says it has managed to shrink all the hardware for such a weapon so that it can fit under the wing of a fighter jet or piggyback on a vehicle to zap anything from ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles to rocket-propelled grenades.

The weapon, called the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defence System (HELLADS), will weigh just 750 kilograms, including its cooling system, and will fit into a space of about 2 cubic metres, around the volume of a large refrigerator. Details of the design were revealed this month at the annual DARPATech conference in Anaheim, by project leader Donald Woodbury of the organisation’s Tactical Technology Office in Arlington, Virginia.

The team, which is working with General Atomics of San Diego, California, has already built a prototype scaled model that is capable of producing a 1-kilowatt beam. They hope to have a 15-kW version finished and ready for testing by the end of the year, and a full-sized prototype capable of firing a 150-kW beam is due to be completed by 2007. “That’s well within the design cycle of the Joint Strike Fighter,” says Woodbury, referring to the next-generation US-UK fighter jet currently under development.

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