One of the defense world’s newest and most promising innovations is the High Energy Laser Weapon System. It is the most advanced and capable concept for a tactical, ground-based defensive laser system, capable of being mounted on a variety of air, land, or sea-based platforms. Of course, lasers themselves are not a new technology. Lasers have been studied and tested for military use for decades. Recently, companies such as Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon have taken this existing technology, scaled it down, and adapted it for a variety of platforms with a new purpose: to shoot down weaponized drones and small munitions. This new mission set for the tactical laser offers the military a drone-killing weapon system that could keep the U.S. ahead of the power curve on the modern battlefield, especially in the fight against non-state actors and armies increasingly using drones for combat operations. Such new weaponry would ensure U.S. and coalition troops engaged in irregular warfare can maintain tactical air supremacy. America’s adversaries are developing new techniques like swarming and obtaining cheaper technology like commercially available drones to overcome, or at least deny, the preponderant American overmatch in the burgeoning field of unmanned vehicles in all domains.
The first exploration into the different possibilities for weaponized lasers began in the 1990s, which culminated in a major study published by the Defense Science Board Task Force in 2001. The Task Force explored the range of possibilities and limitations related to mounting lasers on land, air, and naval platforms, and examined the budgeting timeline and technological advances necessary to build an effective operational system. In short, they recognized laser capabilities were possible and could be developed in the future, but the technological limitations of 2001––weight, energy efficiency, and laser potency, for example––did not permit the creation of effective prototypes. Nevertheless, the Task Force correctly identified the technological advances necessary to create effective platforms that could both provide both offensive and defensive capabilities.
Since 2001, laser technology has become lighter, more potent, and more energy efficient. Recently, the development of ground-based laser defense technology has been scaled down and adapted for tactical use as a result of changing trends in contemporary warfare. This sudden interest “has been sparked in part by the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-obtain drones.” Contemporary armed groups such as the Islamic State and the Houthi rebels in Yemen have employed small and inexpensive commercial-off-the-shelf drones to conduct reconnaissance missions and attack U.S. and allied forces in their respective areas of operation. To combat this, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to develop a “low-cost solution for a low-cost problem.” DARPA recognizes the military needs a cost-effective way to defend against lowball attacks, one that is not using a $3 million Patriot missile to take down a $200 consumer drone, which will likely increase in both quality and lethality as drone technology further develops and becomes cheaper. Such a low-cost adaptation is necessary as more state and non-state actors gain access to and employ unmanned technology. At present, conducting Counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems operations (C-UAS) by jury-rigging multi-million dollar defense systems such as Israel’s Iron Dome is unsustainable in the long run and diverts these systems from their original purpose. If we accept that hostile drone threats will persist, the U.S. military requires systems similar to Lockheed Martin’s prototype: The High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck. It is equipped with a 50-kilowatt high-energy solid-state fiber laser and has a cost per kill of about $30.
What makes the High Energy Laser so cheap to operate? The technology has become more compact and more cost effective to produce than the early concepts of 2001. Below is the initial concept for a vehicle-borne high energy laser system as it existed in 2001.
Unfortunately, the vehicle was enormous, bulky, and overweight; this is hardly the type of agile weapon system needed on a contemporary era battlefield. The laser unit itself created an incredible amount of heat, and the vehicle’s cooling system could only keep the laser running for about 10 engagements before requiring a 30-minute cooldown period. Heat signatures are a major problem on the 21st century battlefield, as most foreign militaries, to include some insurgents, have infrared sensing technologies able to detect even a well-hidden laser-shooting vehicle due to its heat signature.
Finally, the vehicle’s batteries lacked the capacity and staying power needed to operate such a large unit for normal combat operations. This laser was 100 kW––double the energy output of Lockheed’s concept. The 2001 Science Board Task Force report identified this shortfall, and recommended “the cost in terms of watt of output energy must fall by over an order of magnitude to be affordable for an Army ground weapon system.” Also, the Board noticed “the primary cost driver [appeared] to be the microchannel cooler manufacturing” and suggested a “hybrid-electrical ground vehicle is ideally suited to carry [the laser], since the same prime power source can serve to provide both the propulsion of the vehicle and power to the laser.” These limitations hindered the production of a viable platform until more efficient and cost-effective technologies became available.
Newer vehicles tested by Lockheed and Raytheon address these problems by both limiting the laser’s energy output to around 50 kW and using hybrid engines that can both move the vehicle and provide electricity for the lasers. Additionally, as noted by John Kester in Foreign Policy, “traditional weapons require stockpiles of ammunition, which is costly to produce and transport,” but “the high energy laser system requires only fuel to complete its mission.” This advantage could perhaps be exploited even further with the emergence of alternative fuels such as hydrogen cells, which could be a robust alternative since a hydrogen-powered vehicle would only need to carry water, an immensely more useful and available resource on the modern battlefield. In addition, it would be less dangerous than carrying around combustible fuels.
The 2001 Task Force also made the following observation regarding the system’s capabilities at the time:
While continuing to move towards deployment of a mobile system using deuterium, fluoride chemical laser, the Army should broaden efforts toward development of laser technologies for a more robust, supportable system––closed-cycle chemical, solid-state, and fiber lasers. Program options for choosing a new laser should be kept open as long as possible.
The solid-state lasers mentioned in the report were not a well-developed technology at the time, so the 2001 concept was equipped with a less potent chemical laser. As the technology has developed, new prototypes are equipped with solid-state lasers, which “require no volatile chemicals to produce high-powered beams,” and instead act as “combined-beam fiber lasers,” which “[pull] together different beams of light and [squish] them into one.” Furthermore, solid-state lasers can be varied in size and output because “the more fiber optics you add, the more energy you get out the other end.”
Raytheon’s prototype, the HELWS-MRZR, takes the High-Energy Laser Weapon System, which combines a solid-state laser weapon with Raytheon’s own Multi-Spectral Targeting System, and mounts it on a Polaris MRZR® all-terrain vehicle. What results is an advanced, lightweight, and adaptable weapons system that meets a specific military demand. In creating the HELWS-MRZR, Raytheon has not really invented a new technology; they have simply combined existing technologies to create a low cost solution. By changing traditional linkages, improving existing capabilities, and adapting to a specific demand, Raytheon may have created an innovation with the potential to improve the battlefield environment for the U.S. and its allies.
This is important as U.S. ground forces in Iraq and Syria have had to rely on anti-drone rifles that incidentally scramble their own electronics, degrading their anti-Islamic State operations. A Popular Mechanics article on the HELWS-MRZR quoted Ben Allison, director of Raytheon's high energy laser product line, who said, “We didn't want to go out and do a bunch of research and development…We wanted to take the assets and capabilities Raytheon has today and use them to really affect this asymmetrical threat. We settled on a small system that's hugely capable.” In short, Raytheon has not developed a disruptive breakthrough, but simply pieced together existing technologies in an innovative manner to meet a very specific need.
Based on the capabilities afforded by the High-Energy Laser Weapon System, we can speculate how this innovation will influence future military operations. Because of its size and mobility, the High-Energy Laser Weapon System can provide force protection for small ground units or convoys by defending against enemy airborne drone threats. The High-Energy Laser Weapon System can run the targeting system for up to four hours and fire the laser 20-30 times on a single charge, and if connected to a generator it could, in theory, fire indefinitely. Ideally, this innovation would immediately neutralize enemy drone threats using its precision and intense heat, thus denying enemy drone capabilities. By creating an umbrella over troops and vehicles, it can provide immediate protection against drone-borne attacks, which occurred up to 10 to 15 times a day against U.S. and Syrian Democratic Forces in Mosul. In some cases, the system can even intercept some mortar and rocket fire, an ongoing problem in current theaters of operation. High-energy lasers might even be able to assist in explosive ordnance disposal efforts, as well as prevent vehicle-borne improvised explosive device threats, which would largely benefit disposal teams and the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization by providing a rapid response asset class that could decrease both the risk to friendly forces and collateral damage to innocent bystanders. Each of these advances would free up the situational awareness of U.S. and allied troops who need to maintain a competitive edge over insurgents.
As tactical laser technology keeps advancing, the potential for further implementation and integration will likely grow. In addition to providing unmanned aerial vehicle defense for small units and special operations forces, perhaps multiple High-Energy Laser Weapon System could be employed to create a mobile aerial defense umbrella using layered systems to defend convoys or forward operating bases against drones and precision munitions. In addition, the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines are each exploring ways to mount the laser system on their own ships and aircraft for counter-unmanned aerial system defense and other uses. Currently, the Air Force Research Lab has embarked on their Self-Protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, which is “aimed at creating sufficient on-board power, optics and high-energy lasers able to defend large platforms such as a B-52 bomber, C-130 aircraft or fighter jets.” Air Combat Command and Air Force Special Operations Command are also exploring options for airborne defense against “ground-to-air and air-to-air weapons” as well as offensive capabilities.
Finally, the U.S. Navy has tested an “active laser weapons system” on the Austin-class amphibious transport dock USS Ponce. The laser is capable of destroying unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, mortars, and moving surface targets such as small boats within “one to five miles.” The U.S. Army has also begun testing high-energy laser systems, deploying the High-Energy Laser Weapon System MRZR in combat maneuver exercises and mounting a test version of Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System on AH-64 Apache helicopters. It might not be long before these weaponized laser systems become so miniaturized and efficient that soldiers in the field could carry them as easily as an M-4.
By adapting a current technology, defense industry giants Raytheon, Lockheed, and Boeing have each developed weapon systems specifically designed to employ the High-Energy Laser Weapon System to counter modern asymmetric threats. This cheaper approach is particularly novel, as they have done this without having to budget and program for the long-term development of a specific and costly weapon system. Tests have shown these systems offer precise, effective, and relatively inexpensive defense capabilities that can be adapted for a multitude of roles and numerous platforms. If successfully implemented, innovations such as the High-Energy Laser Weapon System MRZR and similar vehicle-borne laser defense systems have the potential to change the tactical and operational landscape by effectively neutralizing an array of airborne threats; protecting countless American, allied, and civilian lives and assets.
Jason Sattler is a Cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The views expressed at the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Conceptual Image of Lasers Attacking Unmanned Systems (Lockheed Martin)
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