Army Fast-Tracks New Laser Weapons For Combat Vehicles
Video: Army Research Lab Scientists... Tells Warrior About Engineering New Explosives
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) What if an advancing mechanized Army unit is closing with an enemy force on the outside border of an urban area, when suddenly a small fleet of enemy drones emerge from behind tall buildings to attack with air-to-ground missiles? Perhaps approaching tanks and tactical vehicles in an armored column might suddenly be placed at risk, if the drones were not previouslydetected by any air asset?
This kind of scenario is precisely why the Air Force and Army are now arming small tactical vehicles with precision-laser weapons to help find and incinerate enemy targets without needing to create explosive fragments. One such system, Raytheon’s High Energy Laser Weapons System, is already integrated on Polaris MRZR light tactical vehicles.
“There are scenarios where a missile works great, but if a drone pops up from a highway… that is why we started looking at directed energy lasers and high powered microwaves. You can’t have the same collateral damage thresholds in those asymmetrical environments,” Evan Hunt, Director of Business Development for High Energy Lasers and c-UAS, told Warrior in an interview.
Hunt explained how a 10kw class of lasers are now overseas on the back of the vehicle performing air base defense operations for the Air Force. On a single charge from a 220-volt outlet, the HEL system onboard the MRZR delivers four hours of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability and 20 to 30 laser shots.
“HEL has four subsystems and a beam director supporting an EO/IR sensor ball on the back of the Polaris. It could be on a pallet or tower, or packaged into an airplane,” he added.
While a few prototype laser weapons themselves have been operational, especially on Navy ships, for many years now, emerging technology is changing the kinds of mission possibilities the weapons can perform, as the military services and its industry partners like Raytheon have been working on software refinements, upgrades and enhancement to improve operational functionality. Part of this includes using new software to enhance the fire-control interface for the laser, something which could be used to increase precision, scale effects or increase power depending upon mission demands.
“We have been able to prototype low SWAP (size, weight and power) highly efficient laser weapons systems being fielded by warfighters here today. The system can also be coupled with a generator to provide virtually infinite magazine depth,” Hunt said.
Much of the innovation has been oriented toward engineering mobile sources of transportable electrical power sufficient to generate and sustain operational effectiveness. Gen. John Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command says the Army is addressing these challenges and making rapid progress integrating mobile electrical power on combat vehicles.
“If you are putting it on a ship, I mean, you’ve got the room and you’ve got the power. If you are putting it in a fixed facility, you can build the room and the power. The problem becomes how do you make these things mobile,” Murray said recently at an event for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Raytheon’s efforts seem to align with Murrays, as Hunt explained that, when it comes to electrical power sufficient to generate lasers, what used to require a refrigerator-sized generator now can be done in a shoebox size.
“Five years ago your thermal management was your biggest problem. You might have a decent sized laser but the thermal management was twice the size. Now things have changed and you have elegantly sized thermal management that complements laser power,” Hunt said.
Yet another challenge with lasers, as explained by Murray, relates to how power can be stored such that a vehicle can operate in combat with a “deep magazine.” Regarding HEL development, Hunt explained that Lithium Ion batteries can help create the kinds of energy magazines needed to charge and store laser light.
Making use of scalable power sources can bring great tactical value to a combat operation because, simply put, some missions require more power than others. For example, the Army is now planning a shoot off of 50kw lasers on a Stryker vehicle to give the platform a powerful counter-drone weapon, yet other threats are best addressed by smaller, scaled down laser weapons. Some of the building blocks needed for lasers involve the use of optical fibers, essentially small string-like tubes of glass which, as Hunt described, can be used to combine beams into one larger, stronger beam or scaled down to address smaller threats.
“It is hard to rapidly prototype a higher power system and also right-size the weapon for the threat. You don’t need a 100kw laser for a small drone – tiny, ubiquitous commercially available drones that have been weaponized. These drones are used as very precise targeting sensors for other ground fires, which can lead to rockets and artillery coming your way. In the past we did not have a threat viable for a lower-power,” Hunt said
Interestingly, the question of scaling lasers to optimize power input is addressed in a recent essay from May of last year called “Testing the Efficiency of Laser Technology to Destroy Rogue Drones,” in the Security & Defense Quarterly from War Studies University. The essay describes innovative experimental methods of “incorporating a laser module and groups of optical lenses to focus the power in one point to carbonize any target.” Specifically, the research paper explained, a laser lens was adjusted to zero in or focus upon particular distant objects.
“We measured the necessary time to burnt acrylic plastic, wood, and hard carton from a distance of 55 metres. It was noticed that the laser efficiency is proportional to the laser power and time the cannon is turned on,” the essay writes.
In a discussion with Warrior, Murray made the point that pre-programmed or autonomous drones do indeed potentially present a uniquely difficult, first-of-its kind defensive predicament which requires tailorable solutions. Perhaps AI-enabled defenses can help discern key specifics related to an incoming drone threat and help determine the optimal countermeasure.
“When you have little drones operating in different patterns and formations, all talking to each other and staying in sync with one another...imagine that with the ability to create lethal effects on the battlefield. There is no human who will be able to keep up with that,” Murray told The National Interest in an interview.
AI-capable drone defenses can already gather, pool, organize and analyze an otherwise disconnected array of threat variables, compare them against one another in relation to what kinds of defense responses might be optimal and make analytical determinations in a matter of milliseconds. As part of this, AI-empowered algorithms can analyze a host of details such as weapons range, atmospheric conditions, geographical factors and point of impact calculations, all in close relation to one another as part of an integrated picture, examine and compare what has worked in specific previous circumstances and scenarios to determine the best defensive response.
Added power to a laser weapon includes the ability to decrease processing time for any kind of kill chain or sensor-to-shooter cycle. While elements of this process can be shortened through the use of AI-empowered computers and automation, doubling the power output from 10kw would likely reduce the kill time from approximately five seconds to two-to-three seconds, Hunt said.
“The laser is a solution with high efficiency that can ruin or intercept autonomously programmed drones, as this cannot be achieved in the same way by the RF jammer or any other solutions,” the War Studies University essay explains.
There are a number of current, high-profile laser weapons development efforts underway to include Air Force initiatives to fire lasers from stealth fighter jets, Navy integration of large, powerful lasers onto destroyers and even Missile Defense Agency work on “power scaling ”sufficient to use lasers for ballistic missile defense.
Nonetheless, one thing Murray stressed was that, while lasers can offer lower-cost, scalable and highly-efficient weapons systems, they can experience what’s called “beam attenuation” and weaken in certain weather conditions.
“One thing about lasers is they are never going to be the sole solution, because of atmospherics weather - so you are always going to have some mix of gun, missile and lasers, I think,” Murray explained.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.