ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A cruise missile that can disrupt an adversary’s electronics and communications, small satellites that can spy on other satellites, and lasers that can knock out incoming artillery and mortar rounds.
Those are some of the cutting-edge technologies being developed at “the other lab” at Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque Economic Forum members were told Wednesday.
David Hardy, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, heralded the directorate’s evolving technologies, economic impact and efforts to get students interested in science and technology.
“I often tell people I work on base and that I’m a scientist, and their first (comment) always is, ‘Oh, you work at Sandia,'” Hardy said. “Before I leave, I hope someone will say, ‘Which lab do you work at ?'” adding that the Air Force Research lab is often overshadowed by the much larger Sandia National Laboratories, also located on Kirtland.
“We do extremely important research in the defense of our country as part of the overall Air Force Research Lab,” which is the science and technology arm of the Air Force, he said.
Two of the AFRL’s nine “directorates” are located at Kirtland: the Directed Energy Directorate and the Space Vehicles Directorate.
The Directed Energy Directorate develops high-powered lasers, microwaves and optical systems for military applications, and the Space Vehicles Directorate develops space technologies that support war-fighting missions.
Together, the two directorates have an annual budget of $625 million, about 60 percent of which goes to contractors. Nearly $200 million is spent in New Mexico, Hardy said.
The Directed Energy Directorate’s major focus is on microwaves and lasers.
“I want us to be the first nation in the world that figures out how to use high-power lasers on aircraft, because that would give us a great strategic advantage over our adversaries,” Hardy said. “My other imperative is, I don’t want to be the second nation that figures out how to use high-power lasers on aircraft.”
Hardy said the Air Force has successfully tested the directorate’s CHAMP system, an acronym for the Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project.
CHAMP is a powerful, microwave-emitting device that can knock out an adversary’s electronic systems.
Last October, a CHAMP system aboard a cruise missile successfully knocked out electrical and computer systems in a two-story building set up at the Utah Test and Training Range. The one-hour test demonstrated how the system could paralyze an enemy’s ability to communicate or operate their computer systems – and with limited collateral damage, Hardy said.
The directorate is also working on the Automated Navigation and Guidance Experiment for Local Space, or ANGELS program, which hopes to field small, highly maneuverable satellites that can closely observe other satellites in space.
Hardy said an ANGELS satellite could be launched as soon as next year.
Another directorate project deals with lasers that can destroy munitions smaller than missiles, such as incoming mortar rounds and artillery shells. That project, being developed with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could be tested at White Sands Missile Range in the coming months, he said.
Hardy also stressed the AFRL’s ongoing efforts to get students interested in pursuing careers in STEM programs – those centered on science, technology, engineering and math.
In addition to the La Luz Academy at Kirtland – which exposes local fifth- through 12th-graders to STEM programs in hopes of nurturing future scientists and engineers – the lab also has “educational partnership agreements” with the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University.
Those agreements are designed to share research with the universities, provide career opportunities, advance technological development in the state and foster interest in STEM programs.