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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.) The People’s Liberation Army is now firing a vehicle-mounted 30kw laser weapon as an air defense weapon to counter drones, incoming enemy missiles and low-flying aircraft, a military move bringing their ground force into a new era of lethality and attack flexibility.

The LW-30, recently unveiled at a Chinese air show, fires from a vehicle-integrated canister firing system at air targets while on the move. The advantages brought by laser weapons are both numerous and well known, as they are not only scalable for effect but also able to travel quietly at the speed of light to incinerate targets without generating large amounts of debris or fragmentation from a kinetic intercept. Lasers are also of course lower cost per shot, and technology in the realm of exportable mobile power small and compact enough to integrate into a vehicle and generate sufficient power continues to make exponential leaps forward.

These breakthroughs in the realm of expeditionary power are extremely significant, as an ability to build in enough transportable electricity sufficient to sustain high-powered lasers has indeed been a long standing challenge for weapons developers. A Chinese government-backed newspaper, called the Global Times, describes the Chinese weapon as having an efficient kill rate, meaning it can destroy multiple drone targets in a matter of seconds.

30kw Vehicle-Mounted Laser Weapon

The Chinese paper says the LW-30 can hit what’s called “slow and small targets,” described as those flying beneath an altitude of one kilometer, at speeds of 200 km per hour. The weapon can also reportedly target and destroy weapons with a radar cross section smaller than one square meter, the paper says.

The tactical advantages of laser weapons are also quite well known and established, although weather obscurants can lead to beam attenuation and complicate targeting precision. Nevertheless, lasers of course attack at the speed of light, can be scaled to either disable or fully destroy and incinerate a target and bring the distinct advantage of achieving a critical battlefield “effect” without causing large explosions.

While certainly many things regarding the efficacy, lethality or operational functionality of the LW-30 may remain unknown, there are several critical variables to consider when evaluating China’s potential capacity with lasers. It may not be clear just how far along the Chinese are when it comes to vehicle-mounted lasers, however an initial look at what the Chinese paper claims this weapon to be seems to suggest the Chinese are considerably behind when it comes to the application of lasers for counter-drone and air defense applications.

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The US military services, for instance, have been developing, refining and deploying laser weapons successfully for many years now. The US Navy deployed the LAWs (Laser Weapons System) from the USS Ponce (Amphibious Transport Dock) as far back as nearly 10-years ago. The LAWs weapon was shown in test video as being capable of incinerating a drone from the deck of a ship.

Interestingly, in 2014, former Chief of Research at the Office of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder declared LAWs operational.

"We've tested it in the lab we've tested it operationally at sea. Now, we are not testing it anymore. This is operational," Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research at the Office of Naval Research said in a public speech in December of 2014. "They are using it every day."

At the time, Klunder went on to explain how the LAWs system also proved operationally effective for surveillance and targeting.

"LaWS is ISR capable. Not only are we using the directed energy to quickly and effectively disable and destroy threats, we've also using it on an everyday basis for targeting and identification of potential threats," Klunder said in 2014.. (I quoted Klunder in an essay I wrote for in 2014.)  "We're picking up things at long ranges with a high degree of resolution. The large aperture telescope provides power and magnification.”

Sure enough, few observers were likely surprised several years after the deployment of LAWs, when the Chinese began testing a prototype ship-based laser weapon nearly identical to LAWs. The US Navy’s LAWs were deployed in 2014, and indeed an interesting 2019 news essay in The Maritime Executive catalogs the arrival of the Chinese laser weapon prototype. Published photos of China’s “tactical laser system” taken from China’s CCTV show a weapon nearly identical to the US Navy’s LAWs.

Much like the Chinese LW-30, the US Navy ship-integrated LAWs weapon was a 30-kilowatt solid state laser weapon which, when deployed in 2014, proved effective at both attack missions and targeting or ISR operations as an optical sensor. In more recent years, the US Navy has been arming its fleet DDG 51 Destroyers with laser weapons called High-Energy Laser with Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS).

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However, there is much more “space” or real-estate on a surface ship, offering opportunities to integrate, store and utilize the requisite amount of electrical power needed to fire lasers from a ship. Integrating lasers onto ground vehicles such as what the Chinese military is doing with the LW-30, therefore, is a far more challenging task. It appears the Chinese may be behind when it comes to ground laser applications as well, as the Army and Air Force have been testing, prototyping and deploying ground-fired laser systems for several years now. 

As far back as several years ago, the Army and the Air Force deployed Raytheon’s High Energy Laser Weapons System (HEL) on the back of a Polaris MRZR light tactical vehicle to protect air bases. Raytheon weapons developers told Warrior that 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. The Army is also integrating lasers into its base defense protection systems with increasing speed, fire control integration and AI-enabled target identification.

Raytheon HEL weapons developers told Warrior that part of the breakthrough with engineering smaller, mobile, more expeditionary vehicle-integrated laser weapons relates to breakthrough discoveries building smaller "thermal management" or cooling systems. 

“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,” Evan Hunt, Director of Business Development for High Energy Lasers and c-UAS, told Warrior in an interview several years ago.  Did the Chinese learn how to do this? Perhaps they stole or copied the technology. 

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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 when talking about the HEL, can be used to combine beams into one larger, stronger beam or scaled down to address smaller threats.

The Army has now been power-scaling lasers for years. In the last several years, the Army has also armed its Stryker with 50-kw counter-drone lasers in support of its vehicle-integrated Short Range Air Defense technology. (SHORAD). The Stryker mounted laser began as a 5kw laser and has in recent years been scaled much larger. 

Vehicle integrated lasers have indeed been a substantial breakthrough step forward in recent years, and it certainly seems feasible that the Chinese military is copying US laser technologies and applications. 

In the air, the US Air Force has for years been achieving breakthrough success with aircraft-fired laser weapons applications. The Air Force Research Lab, for example, has performed many ground fired laser tests and the ability to integrate laser weapons onto fighter jets is fast approaching. Much like integrating mobile power into a moving ground vehicle, arming a fighter jet with a laser weapon presents new challenges given the available space and required size or form factor. Following ground tests, the Air Force is moving toward arming cargo planes with lasers as an intermediate step prior to building them into fighter jets, something which may now only be a few years away, if not sooner.

Given all this, can the new emerging Chinese LW-30 compete with or rival the many US applications of laser weapons which are already operational? May be tough to know exactly, as the real margin of difference with the emerging Chinese vehicle-mounted laser may pertain to its targeting precision and sensor integration, meaning the efficiency and quickness with which a target can be “seen” and then “attacked.” Completing the kill chain, as it's called, requires fire control integration, computing and multiple-tier data networking in some cases to verify targets quickly and reduce the sensor-to-shooter timeline. Essentially, the speed and accuracy of targeting, particularly in the case of efforts to counter an approaching drone swarm, would determine the relative superiority of any laser system.

The new Chinese laser may be considerably behind US military laser applications in this respect, however there are likely many unknowns related to the LW-30. Apart from its relative progress with vehicle-fired lasers, China has for many years now had success developing laser weapons applications, particularly those related to space. Relevant context related to these questions can be found in the Pentagon’s just released 2022 China Military Power report, a comprehensive assessment of Chinese weapons systems and modernization. For instance, China has for years been cultivating laser weapons for use in space, the Pentagon report says.

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“China has multiple ground-based laser weapons of varying power levels to disrupt, degrade, or damage satellites that include a current limited capability to employ laser systems against satellite sensors. By the mid- to late-2020s, China may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites,” the Pentagon Report states.

This portion of the Pentagon report makes sense for a number of reasons, as China has been operating at the forefront of anti-satellite weapons for many years now and laser weapons technology is increasingly being developed for space and missile defense applications. Space is actually somewhat optimal for lasers, meaning laser beams can travel more easily beyond the earth’s atmosphere. For instance, the Missile Defense Agency has for many years now been “power-scaling” laser weapons for potential use against enemy ICBMs. Lasers might even be able to fire from ship-based Aegis radar systems to hit targets close to or beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

There is certainly much discussion about the rapid technological progress of the Chinese military, as evidenced by the Pentagon’s report, and China is well known to be quite advanced in the realm of hypersonics, quantum computing, anti-satellite weapons and other technologies. When it comes to ground-fired lasers for base and drone defense, while much is of course unknown, the Chinese may be several years behind when it comes to militarizing lasers for land combat. 

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 a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.