Video Above: Soldiers Will Wear and Fire Laser Weapons
Firing lasers from fighter jets while in combat, hitting enemy hypersonic missiles in space and incinerating enemy drones from armored combat vehicles are all missions intended for fast-emerging, now-in-development laser weapons.
Lasers, and many laser technologies such as rangefinders and spotters are of course already used in many applications, including deployed Navy ships. At the same time, the Pentagon and military services are moving quickly to develop newer, stronger, more-mobile laser weapons. Much of this includes “laser scaling” and “size, weight and power” improvements intended to engineer lasers able to arm fighter jets, ground vehicles and even destroy enemy ICBMs in space or fast maneuvering cruise missiles.
HEL: High-Energy Laser
One innovation now being pursued by the Army and several industry competitors is called HEL, for High-Energy Laser. General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, for example, is now engineering a scalable HEL able to fire a 100kw-class up to a 300kw-class laser with integrated thermal management, beam direction and precision tracking software. The GA-EMS prototype HEL laser is a packaged version of the 7thGeneration Distributed Gain (DG) Design they’ve already demonstrated. The laser system employs two Gen 7 laser heads in a very compact and lightweight package. Recent architectural improvements have enabled single-beam DG Lasers to achieve comparable beam quality to fiber lasers in a very simple design without the need for beam combination.
The GA-EMS HEL could mount from a large tactical truck to, for example, offer cruise missile or Forward Operating Base protection to advancing convoys or troops, large mechanized forces, installations or ammo and supplies in transit. While 50kw lasers are now being fired from tactical vehicles and even armored vehicles such as Strykers, much of the key scaling work being done by GA-EMS centers upon “scaling” laser energy to reach 300kw for cruise missile defense and an ability to intercept, incinerate and destroy large maneuvering targets.
One application under development is the integration of a large, high-power laser onto an Army Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck or HEMTT. This application could not only bring mobility to ground-based tactical defense but also enable a large enough form factor to transport, store and draw upon the large amounts of exportable power sufficient to support a 300kw or larger laser.
More powerful lasers are important to intercept large incoming explosives traveling at high speeds, and GA-EMS is working on scaling and integrating the power, fire control and beam scaling necessary to introduce new levels of intercept power. Scalability means a laser this powerful could be tailored to destroy and fully incinerate or simply disable or render inoperable.
The HEL can work with multiple radar systems and potentially build upon recent networking success with the Army’s Sentinel Radar and Patriot radar; the Army’s Patriot has had some success tracking multiple maneuvering cruise missiles targets inbound to target. This is the kind of combat contingency for which the HEL might be well positioned to support, as the laser could integrate with the radar system to intercept and destroy the incoming cruise missiles. The HEL could also integrate with the Marine Corps Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar, yet another system intended to track and destroy larger incoming threats. One additional advantage when it comes to HEL-radar integration is the fact that the Army is having great success networking radar systems to one another in real time to share target coordinates and create an integrated “meshed” network of defensive nodes. These could be synergized with HEL fire control to greatly expedited sensor-to-shooter intercept.
Lower kilowatt lasers can fire from an armored vehicle on the move in combat against enemy helicopters, drones or even advancing infantry? The concept with the GA-EMS system is to engineer the requisite size, weight and expeditionary power requirements to ensure the weapon can successfully integrate and transport onto a wide range of different form factors.
HEL: For Helicopters, Drones or Jets?
Could the HEL eventually fire from a helicopter, drone or fighter jet? There would need to be sufficient mobile power form factors and technology to enable a laser this powerful from a smaller platform, however given the pace of power scaling progress, it certainly seems conceivable that there will continue to be new applications.
Certainly the military services are fast making progress on these kinds of initiatives, depending upon how quickly developers can engineer sufficient exportable power in a small enough form factor to travel on a fighter jet or drone.
The Air Force Research Lab, for example, has been working on this for many years with ground-firing prototypes and various airborne applications. The thinking was to potentially begin with larger cargo planes as they might be well suited to accommodate the weight and power requirements of laser weapons. However, while tactically useful, this step is primarily viewed as an interim effort to prepare laser weapons for 5th-generation stealth fighters such as the F-35 and other high-end airborne platforms.
Space & Ships
Army Scientists and weapons developers are even working to engineer lasers strong and durable enough to travel into space and seeking to build compact, transportable, smaller-form-factor lasers able to integrate into fast-moving, fighter jets, tactical trucks and combat vehicles and transportable soldier devices. The Missile Defense Agency is now “power scaling” lasers in preparation for using them for missile defenses, the Air Force Research Laboratory is miniaturizing strong mobile power systems to fire lasers from fighter jets and the Army is already arming Stryker vehicles with laser weapons.
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 previously detected by any air asset?
This kind of scenario is precisely why the Air Force and Army are now arming small tactical vehicles and even larger tactical trucks with precision-laser weapons to help find and incinerate enemy targets without needing to create explosive fragments. Lasers would also provide a more cost effective long-term solution than current assets.
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 earlier this year at an event for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
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 GA-EMS 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.
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