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#WARFIGHTING – Civilian Scientist

October is #Warfighting month focusing on Navy Warfighters, a fast and flexible force deployed worldwide to preserve peace, protect commerce, and deter aggression on, above, and below the sea. We’ve taken you through examples of how Navy is leading #Warfighting in the land, sea and air, but we’re also supporting the warfighter mission in the lab. Quentin Saulter, a Program Officer at the Office of Naval Research tells us about the Free-Electron Laser.

When the Department of the Navy’s laser program started in the ‘60s, it probably had all the hallmarks of a good science fiction story.  Like others from my generation, I was captivated by movies like “Star Wars” and the imaginative technology of the future. Many of us pursued science and engineering careers—and many of those Hollywood concepts are coming to fruition today.

Within a 20-year window, the Navy’s High-Energy Laser technology program has developed numerous lasers including the largest chemical laser test bed in the United States, which still exists today at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

Today, I am fortunate to be working at the Office of Naval Research as the program manager for the Free-Electron Laser (FEL), and yes, it is a cool job!  One of my responsibilities is building on early laser research to advance our strategic goals.

The Navy is focused on developing directed energy systems compatible with today’s naval vessels and future all-electric ships that can operate in any maritime environment. We’ve gained invaluable information in laser technology since the early years.

As the Navy continues to seek directed energy advantages, ONR has spearheaded and sponsored the development of a lower power FEL prototype. Ultimately, FEL will bring speed-of-light capability to tracking, target discrimination, countermeasures and scalable direct fire. It’s designed to combat surface and air threats, future anti-cruise missile and tactical ballistic missiles, and swarms of small boats.

Working with the National Academy of Science, we’ve reviewed and validated the need for directed energy applications, including this laser.  The technology’s promise led to its selection as an Innovative Naval Prototype program.

Last year, the Navy upped its stake in fielding a laser weapon system in the near future, namely with a solid-state laser program and work on the Megawatt-class FEL for the future.

In 2011, ONR successfully disabled a small target vessel using a solid-state, high-energy laser (HEL), mounted onto the deck of the Navy’s self-defense test ship, the former USS Paul Foster (DD 964) (Video)

And to ensure that the future naval workforce continues to improve in this arena, several universities—including the Naval Postgraduate School and UCLA—have developed programs yielding scientists and engineers now working on FEL initiatives in national laboratories and industry. They’ll help to move us forward in understanding how physics, math and engineering work can help us advance research in directed energy (listen to Quentin talk more about STEM education).

While we are still a long way from what George Lucas envisioned in “Star Wars,” we are a lot closer to a laser system that will help our Navy do its mission better, and protect our warfighters.

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