General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., or GA-ASI, the San Diego-based company that makes the Predator and Reaper drones, is undertaking a privately funded study to integrate a 150-kilowatt solid-state laser onto its Avenger drone. If the company succeeds, a drone with a high-energy laser will be a reality at some point in 2017. Patrick Tucker, technology editor Defense One, provides the report and had gotten direct information from General Atomics.
In June, the company delivered a 150-kilowatt liquid laser to the Pentagon for extensive testing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. For comparison, the 30 kw laser (output) currently on the Ponce in the Persian Gulf has more than enough output to destroy an enemy drone or blow a hole in a boat. In addition to 5 times the power, the significant increase in beam quality provides significantly higher lethality than the system on the Ponce.
Bringing these two technologies together involves a lot more than strapping a laser cannon under the drone’s wings. Hitting a target with a laser mounted on a vibrating platform moving quickly through air laden with dust and water vapor is tougher than launching a Hellfire at a moving vehicle.
After you solve the targeting problem, the laws of physics present their own challenges. Lasers in the 150-kilowatt range are big, heavy, and power-hungry. Shrinking size-weight-and-power, or SWAP, scores to workable levels remains the biggest obstacle to arming aircraft with lasers. Weight alone will likely bar 150 kw lasers from the MQ-1; engineers have set their sights on building weapons for the Predator-C and its 3,000-pound payload capacity.
• Lasers with power levels in the tens of kilowatts could have more capability for countering UAVs, and could counter at least some small boats as well.
• Lasers with a power level of about 100 kW would have a greater ability for countering UAVs and small boats, as well as some capability for countering rockets, artillery, and mortars.
• Lasers with power levels in the hundreds of kilowatts could have greater ability for countering targets mentioned above, and could also counter manned aircraft and some missiles.
• Lasers with power levels in the megawatts could have greater ability for countering targets mentioned above—including supersonic ASCMs and ballistic missiles—at ranges of up to about 10 nautical miles.
Drones with high energy lasers will usher in a new battlefield role for medium-sized tactical drones. They can have the mission of loitering and striking targets, and also protecting forces from enemies drones and missiles.
SOURCES – Defense One, Congressional Research service