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Feature Story

Boeing's Juan Ceniceros (right) and Chris Garcia unwrap the solid-state laser

Boeing/Liz Sobol

Boeing's Juan Ceniceros (right) and Chris Garcia unwrap the solid-state laser that Boeing and BAE Systems plan to repackage and add to a ship-based machine gun system.

Lasers on the high seas

An artist's rendering of the Tactical Laser System

Boeing image

An artist's rendering of the Tactical Laser System.

Michael Rinn has been leading the charge for lasers for much of his 25 years at Boeing. The former U.S. Navy fighter pilot’s accomplishments include overseeing development of a laser-equipped Boeing 747 that destroyed a ballistic missile for the first time in 2010.

“Laser weapons have come a long way in the past few years,” said Rinn, vice president of Boeing Directed Energy Systems. “We’ve shown they’re no longer science fiction.”

In fact, Rinn believes Boeing’s newest laser program, the Mk 38 Tactical Laser System (Mk 38 TLS), is ready to set sail --- literally.

Under a $2.8 million contract from the U.S. Navy, Boeing and Mk 38 TLS prime contractor BAE Systems plan to add a commercial-off-the-shelf, 10-kilowatt, solid-state laser to an existing, ship-based Mk 38 machine gun system. Testing of the prototype is planned for 2012.

“Our approach provides a cost-effective, low-risk, ultra-precise system that can be fielded on all major ship classes through a common mount with minimal impact to the ship or its crew,” Rinn said. “Our team combines the extensive experience of BAE Systems in Navy systems integration with Boeing’s leadership in laser weapon systems to deliver an affordable, advanced ship self-defense capability.”

“Our approach provides a cost-effective, low-risk, ultra-precise system that can be fielded on all major ship classes through a common mount with minimal impact to the ship or its crew.”
An artist's rendering of TLS engaging a target

Boeing image

An artist's rendering of TLS engaging a target.

Mk 38 TLS will give the Navy new ways to defend its vessels against the growing threat from small boats, such as the one terrorists used in the deadly bombing attack against the USS Cole in 2000.

“If approached by a small boat with unclear intentions, a ship with Mk 38 TLS could stop it with nonlethal means, such as frying its engine,” said Amir Chaboki, who manages BAE’s advanced programs. “If the advancing boat were deemed hostile, the laser could destroy it more precisely than gunfire would, greatly reducing the risk to other boats in the area.”

While big in capability, Mk 38 TLS is compact in size. The laser will fit inside the circular base of the gun mount. The laser beam director, derived from the Boeing Laser Avenger system, attaches to the side of the gun mount and is small enough to “fit on your coffee table,” said Greg Hyslop, vice president and general manager of Boeing Strategic and Missile Defense Systems.

Michael Rinn talks to Boeing employees in Albuquerque, N.M.

Boeing/Liz Sobol

Michael Rinn talks to Boeing employees in Albuquerque, N.M., where he leads the company's directed energy programs, including the Tactical Laser System.

“This revolutionary system combines kinetic and directed energy weapons capabilities on a single platform,” said Boeing Mk 38 TLS program manager Kami Burr. “The addition of the laser provides unprecedented accuracy against surface and air targets, such as small boats and unmanned aircraft. Boeing has leveraged our many years of experience with laser systems to design the beam director for Mk 38 TLS.”

Another advantage of Mk 38 TLS is that the BAE-built Mk 38 is already deployed aboard dozens of U.S. Navy surface ships. Having the laser complement the combat-proven gun system is expected to be easier for the Navy to embrace than replacing the gun outright.

“Remote-controlled machine guns like the Mk 38 have been around many years and have shown in battle what they can do,” Chaboki said. “Lasers have not, so the comfort factor there still needs to be developed.”

Boeing and BAE Systems proposed a system similar to Mk 38 TLS during a U.S. Navy competition two years ago. Although they lost, they felt confident enough in their design to continue working on it with their own research money. They believe the Navy contract for TLS confirms they were on the right track.

“We’re glad we stuck to our guns, so to speak,” Rinn said.