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In the 1980s, moviegoers learned that being a Real Genius meant making sure the technology you developed didn't fall into the wrong hands -- and by "wrong hands" the movie meant the U.S. military. Most audiences were happy to see a group of nerdy tech students, led by Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) and Mitch Taylor (Gabriel Jarret), prevent the government from acquiring a megawatt laser weapon capable of vaporizing human targets with extreme accuracy. But for those that think the immature students let their need to get even get in the way of national security, good news: Real geniuses at Boeing are making great strides with their real life Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) weapon system -- and they want the Air Force to use it.
In 2002 Boeing started the $200 million project and this summer members of the 413th Flight Test Squadron successfully fired their high-power laser for the first time in flight. The specially modified 46th Test Wing NC-130H aircraft equipped with the ATL weapon system hit a target board located on the ground while flying over White Sands Missile Range, NM. Apparently, Boeing employees are more serious about getting the job done than students at "Pacific Tech," who run around in bunny slippers avoiding responsibility.
"We have taken technology from the laboratory to reality and have now demonstrated that directed energy is on a path toward a safe and viable option for the warfighter with very unique capabilities," said Eric Van Dorn, the lead flight test engineer.
Could the elusive SciFi Death Ray finally be making its way into real combat? Boeing released video from an August 30th test flight of a combat simulation that suggests so: ATL engaged with a tactically representative target, going from a C-130H Hercules to the hood of a stationary car. Don't expect it to look like the military demonstration for "The Crossbow Project" that starts Real Genius -- you won't see a laser shooting down from space and vaporizing a man and his newspaper from head to toe in a matter of seconds. In fact, you won't see the infra-red laser at all. What you will see is a small fire igniting, apparently spontaneously, on a jeep's hood.
It doesn't look like much, but a Boeing press release swears "the laser beam's energy defeated the vehicle." And while they weren't testing from space, an ATL can deliver the heat of a blowtorch with a range of 20 kilometers, great enough that the aircraft carrying it might not be seen, especially at night. "The bottom line is that ATL works, and works very well," said Gary Fitzmire, vice president and program director of Boeing Missile Defense Systems' Directed Energy Systems unit. "ATL's components -- the high-energy chemical laser, beam control system and battle manager -- are performing as one integrated weapon system, delivering effective laser beam energy to ground targets."
As eager as air force pilots are to fight like the rebel pilots in Star Wars, PopSci points out that the USAF's own scientific advisory board said in 2008 that "the Advanced Tactical Laser testbed has no operational utility." Boeing argues the ultra-precision weapon will dramatically reduce collateral damage and some officials see another plus: something they call "plausible deniability." After all, who could prove the source of a weapon that silently fires from nowhere and leaves no munition fragments? In the words of The Crossbow Project: "There's no defense like a good offense."
The irony for those longing to see a real device in action: if they really get it working we probably won't see anything. (Unless, of course, a house mysteriously fills with enough freshly popped popcorn to shake it off its foundation.) The greatest proof that Val Kilmer's irreverent "Einstein of the '80s" isn't the only genius smart enough to make a laser a real threat? In 2008, the Air Force requested proposals for "retrofittable laser protection for weapons."