They’re finally here, now we’re just waiting for the laser guns
The US Army have announced that they are going to be going all in on laser and direct energy weapons and that they will be rolling them out to all of their Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and fitting them onto their armoured Stryker personel carriers first. The announcement comes in the wake of an increasing variety of attacks, via and increasing number of platforms – such as drones, mortars and artillery – on US troops, and as tensions, and competition for military supremacy, rise with countries such as China and Russia.
The Army and General Dynamics Land Systems are developing a Stryker mounted laser weapon aimed at better arming the vehicle to incinerate enemy drones or threatening ground targets. The concept vehicles are being engineered and tested at the Army’s Ft. Sill artillery headquarters as a way to quickly develop the weapon for operational service. During a test in April, the laser weapons successful shot down 21 out of 23 enemy drone targets and the program is the first time that a laser weapon has ever been integrated into a combat vehicle.
“The idea is to provide a solution to a capability gap which is an inability to acquire, track and destroy low, slow drones that are proliferating all over the world,” said Tim Reese, director of strategic planning.
The weapon is capable of destroying Group 1 (drones up to 20lbs) and Group 2 (drones up to 55lbs) small and medium sized drones, Reese added.
The laser, which Reese says could be operational as soon as 11 months from now, will initially be integrated into the Fire Support Vehicle Stryker variant which is designed for target tracking and identification and General Dynamics Land Systems is now working on upgrading the power of the laser from two kilowatts of power to five kilowatts. The laser weapon system uses its own tracking radar to acquire targets in the event that other sensors on the vehicle are disabled in combat and has an electronic warfare jamming system intended to jam the signal of enemy drones. Boeing is responsible for making the fire control technology integrated into the laser weapon and the laser is also integrated with air-defense and field artillery networks.
“The energy of the laser damages, destroys and melts different components of the target,” Reese explained and the Army is now in research and test mode, with a clear interest in rapidly deploying these types of systems into the field. Reese added that GDLS anticipates being able to fire an 18-kilowatt laser from the Stryker by 2018.
One of the biggest challenged with mobile energy weapons is the amount of power they need in order to operate so it isn’t just as simple as fitting them onto a vehicle and getting them combat ready – a problem that even Americas most advanced warship the USN Zumwalt had before it was outrigged with its new 75 megawatt power plant.
“As power goes up, the range of these weapons increase and time taken to achieve the melt increases. You can achieve less than one half of the burn time and that gives us issues,” he said.
The initiative is of particular importance given the current tensions in Europe between Russia and NATO. The US Army in Europe is slap bang in the middle of a large scale effort to collaborate with allies on multi-lateral exercises, show an ability to rapidly deploy armoured forces across the European continent and up-gun combat platforms stationed in Europe – such as the Stryker.
The Army is also planning to deploy laser weapons that can protect their FOBs by helping to rapidly incinerate and destroy approaching enemy drones, artillery rounds, mortars and cruise missiles – something that forward operating soldiers are becoming more and more accustomed to seeing.
Adding lasers to the arsenal, integrated with sensors and fire-control radar, could massively help US soldiers quickly destroy enemy threats by burning them out of the sky in seconds, Army leaders said.
“We’ve clearly demonstrated you can takeout UAVs pretty effectively. Now we are not only working on how we take out UAVs but also mortars and missiles – and eventually cruise missiles,” said Mary Miller, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the US Army’s Research and Technology facility.
The emerging weapons are being placed into a program called Indirect Fire Protection Capability, or IFPC Increment 2 and the objective is that lasers will be able to be deployed to FOBs by 2023 as part of an integrated system of technologies, sensors and weapons designed to thwart incoming attacks.
At the moment, Army soldiers at FOBs use a system called Counter Rocket, Artillery, Mortar – or C-RAM, to knock down incoming enemy fire such as mortar shells. C-RAM uses sensors alongside a vehicle mounted 20mm Phalanx Close-in-Weapons-System able to fire 4,500 rounds per minute. The idea is to blanket an area with large numbers of small projectiles as a way to intercept and destroy incoming artillery, rocket or mortar fire.
Also, lasers bring the promise of quickly incinerating a wide range of targets while helping to minimize costs, Miller explained.
“The shot per kill (with lasers) is very inexpensive when the alternative is sending out a multi-million dollar missile,” Miller said.
Boeing’s Avenger Laser weapon successfully destroyed a drone in 2008 at White Sands Missile Range.
The Army is also developing a mobile high-energy solid-state laser program called the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, or HEL MD. The weapon mounts a 10 kilowatt laser on top of a tactical truck. HEL MD weapons developers, who rotate the laser 360-degrees on top of a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, say the Army plan is to increase the strength of the laser up to 100 Kilowatts, service officials said.
“The supporting thermal and power subsystems will be also upgraded to support the increasingly powerful solid state lasers. These upgrades increase the effective range of the laser or decrease required lase time on target,” an Army statement said
In November of 2013, the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command used the HEL MD, a vehicle-mounted high energy laser, to successfully engage more than 90 mortar rounds and several unmanned aerial vehicles in flight at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
“This was the first full-up demonstration of the HEL MD in the configuration that included the laser and beam director mounted in the vehicle. A surrogate radar (Enhanced Multi Mode Radar) supported the engagement by queuing the laser,” an Army statement said.
Miller explained how the Army hopes to build upon this progress to engineer laser weapons able to destroy larger targets at farther ranges. She said the evolution of laser weapons has spanned decades but that now real progess was being made.
“We first determined we could use lasers in the early 60’s. It was not until the 90’s when we determined we could have the additional power needed to hit a target of substance. It took us that long to create a system and we have been working that kind of system ever since,” Miller added.