Monterey – When Dr. William Colson began researching the Free Electron Laser (FEL) as a graduate student in the seventies, he had little to go on. "There wasn't a body of knowledge to go read and then extend that body of knowledge; there was nothing. And there was also many experts who had said this was not a good idea and this would not work," said Dr. Colson, a Distinguished Professor at the Naval Post Graduate School. Thirty years later, he's a leading expert on the FEL and one step closer to seeing the laser used on a U.S. Navy ship.
The NPS is in the process of establishing a Free Electron Laser Laboratory and Research Center where Dr. Colson and others will be developing a new defensive weapons system for the Navy. Here he explains how the laser works. "When you shine that laser on a spot about the size of a potato it burns and cracks it and melts it, whatever's there gets destroyed. So what we want to do is shine the light out to a part of the missile and structurally damage it so it breaks up and that takes about one second," said Dr. Colson.
"One of the unique things about a Free Electron Laser is you can change the wavelength," said Captain David Kiel who works in the Navy's Program Office for Directed Energy and Electric weapons.
He says the Navy will primarily use it for ship self defense against cruise missiles and aircrafts. But it will also be useful in situations like the recent event when Iranian speed boats approached a U.S. ship in the Strait of Hormuz. In that situation, he said the Navy could've started by using an eye safe wavelength that warms the skin. "You could've done that to warn the people. And then if they continued coming, you could've turned that power up and actually killed the engine without actually having to kill any people or the boat, and if for some reason people were still suicidal you could've actually gone and sunk the boat," said Captain Kiel.
The weapon's speed and versatility could change the way the Navy operates by allowing ships to get closer to shore where they can better assist ground troops. Dr. Colson believes it could change the future of warfare. "I've often talked about the American morality play is John Wayne standing in the street. The other guy draws first and then John Wayne doesn't even shoot him, he shoots the gun out of his hand and that's sort of the American ideal of what should happen. And I think the Free Electron Laser or laser weapons kind of fit that mold. Not big destruction, but you've defeated the other guy," said Dr. Colson.
It could take 15 years before a FEL weapon makes it aboard a U.S. ship.
Next month, the American Association for the Advancement of Science will honor Dr. Colson with the distinction of Fellow.