Army developing lasers that pierce fog, dust to destroy targets
By David Vergun, U.S. Army
A lot of people think that high-energy lasers, or HELs, can't penetrate fog, rain, and dust, said Thomas Webber. That's just plain wrong.
Webber, director of the Directed Energy Division's Technical Center, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, spoke at the Association of the United States Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition on Oct. 9.
This Mobile High-Energy Laser-equipped Stryker was evaluated April 12 during the 2017 Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment at Fort Sill, OK. The MEHEL can shoot a drone out of the sky using a 5-kW laser. [Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by C. Todd Lopez]
The key to making HELs work in poor atmospheric conditions is something called "adaptive optics," he said, adding that the Army is continuing to make more and more improvements on its adaptive optics system to give a greater range of compensation for degraded conditions.
Besides the optics, an effective beam control system is used that forms one beam from multiple lasers to pinpoint exactly where the peak energy should be focused, he said, adding that it operates in conjunction with the optics system.
Advantages of lasers
Webber outlined some advantages HELs have over conventional weapons. HELs are low cost, the main expense being the diesel used to power the generators, he said.
They're also faster than conventional weapons, he pointed out.
The HELs have rapid engagement, which means that once the target is acquired and engaged, "it's not getting away from you because the instant fired, it will make contact with it at the speed of light. It doesn't get any faster than that."
Precision of the energy is another key component, he said, meaning HEL can be focused at the most vulnerable point of the target where it will do the most damage thanks to the advanced optics and speed at which a laser travels.
In fact, the optics on the HEL are so advanced that a battlefield commander can use them for multiple applications with regards to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. "It's the best ISR capability they'll ever have access to," Webber said.
HEL has "a deep magazine," he said, implying that it doesn't run out of bullets or jam like conventional weapons sometimes do.
Another advantage is that HELs don't broadcast a visible signature because the laser beam is invisible to the human eye, despite artist renderings of lasers firing brightly colored beams, he said.
Finally, he said HELs give commanders graduated degrees of engagement. What that means is the HELs can be dialed up to destroy rockets, mortar, and artillery fire, as well as unmanned systems, or the power can be dialed down low enough to disable targets as "soft" as an AK-47 rifle.
VIDEO courtesy DefenseWebTV: U.S. Army demonstrates MEHEL 2 0 laser weapon on Stryker 8x8 armoured combat vehicle (March 18, 2017).
The effectiveness of lasers was demonstrated during the Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization's "Hard Kill Challenge" exercise, conducted at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, from Feb. 27 to March 3, 2017, Webber said.
During that challenge, the Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser 2.0, using a relatively small 5-kW HEL, demonstrated its counter-UAS capability, winning the challenge by shooting down more UASs than any other type of weapon, he noted.
Getting to this point in time required about 10 years of development, testing, and lots of trial and error, Webber said.
The reason development has seemed like a long time coming is, "We want to get this capability to the field as quickly as we can, (but) we also want to work this in an engineering mindset. We want to get it right and demonstrate the capability and be informed as we move forward," he said.
When the Army was looking for a laser, instead of inventing one, it turned to the private sector, which had been using them for some time in the welding industry.
The next step was to develop a thermal management system to address all of the radiant heat that HELs give off, then develop a beam control system that could point at and track moving objects, he said. Also, a power management system was developed that provided HEL with a refresh rate that allowed power to recycle fast enough to fire multiple bursts.
All of that, along with generators, batteries, and laser components was pretty massive, he said, so the Army decided to place it all on one of its bigger trucks, the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, or HEMTT, which allowed the team to demonstrate capabilities with a 10-kW HEL three years ago.
This fiscal year, a 60-kW HEL-on-a-HEMTT will inform milestone decisions, and in FY19 another demonstration will lead to proof of concept.
The next step, Webber said, is to put a 100-kW HEL on a family of medium tactical vehicles, with the goal of making it a program of record.
Although HELs are not yet in the brigade combat teams, some Soldiers at Fort Sill and other places have gotten the opportunity to experiment with them, he said.
Those experiments involved a 5-kW HEL mounted on a Stryker. The main focus wasn't power -- it was about learning what tactics, techniques, and procedures Soldiers might employ, he said. "They'd come up with some pretty crazy and creative ways they could use the laser. That's good. The user testing was so valuable."
Eventually, the team plans to mount a 50-kW HEL on a Stryker, he said. "This will be our mobile mission high-energy laser ... with enough power for short-range air defense capability for the maneuver force. That's key. Moving with the force."
Although Webber's team is the Army's lead for HEL science and technology, he said the Army is working collaboratively within its own laboratories and centers of excellence, as well as across the services, with allies, as well as industry partners.
"High-energy lasers can be used in a variety of mission sets that address existing and future capability gaps," Webber said. "These invisible killers are going to be game changers."