Directed energy combat lasers and microwave weapons brings the dawn of an entirely new era in defense

Lasers, microwaves and other directed energy weapons will be used more widely by the U.S. military.

U.S. military, top armed forces officials described weapons that are in various stages of development and testing by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army, but said more work was needed to develop tactics for their use and to ensure sufficient funding.

“Directed energy brings the dawn of an entirely new era in defense,” Lieutenant General William Etter, Commander, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, told a conference hosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington.

Directed energy refers to weapons that emit focused energy in the form of lasers, microwaves, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves, sound or particle beams.

Etter and other officials said such weapons could lower the cost of current weapons, speed up responses to enemy attacks and cut deaths of civilians in the battlefield, but tough policy questions remained about their deployment.

The Navy was extending deployment of the laser on the Ponce, and using lessons learned to help produce a 100-150 kilowatt laser prototype for testing at sea in 2018 or sooner. He said a powerful new railgun that could hit targets 100 miles away would also be tested at sea next year. A railgun is an electrically powered electromagnetic projectile launcher.

The Navy would release a comprehensive road map this fall for developing, acquiring and fielding high-power radio frequency weapons, lasers and directed energy countermeasures.

Iran, China, Russia and other countries were already using lasers and the U.S. military needed to accelerate often cumbersome acquisition processes to ensure that it stayed ahead of potential foes.

The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) is targeting demonstrating a 100+kw combat laser on a fighter by 2022. The airforce wants to integrate combat laser systems into future fighters in the 2030+.

Initially the combat lasers will be in external pod that attach to the fighter.

The General Atomics HELLADS laser, which will soon shift from a DARPA experiment to a DARPA-Air Force Research Lab joint venture. “That was a major investment on the part of DARPA,” Hardy said. “It’s the first time anybody’s shown you can make a 150-kW-class electric laser.

A typical modern fighter like the F-16 can carry at most six air-to-air missiles. Shoot six times, hit or miss, and it’s back to base to re-arm. By contrast, said Gunzinger, a laser-armed aircraft could just head back to the tanker. “Instead of landing to reload, air refueling would ‘reload’ [laser]-equipped aircraft in flight,” he said. They could keep fighting until the pilot couldn’t take it any more — or, if unmanned, for longer than any human could endure.

Special Operations Command wants a laser cannon on future AC-130s.

AC130J models could have lasers. The first two AC130J aircraft will not have the 105mm gun installed. That’ll have to be retrofitted later. The third AC10J AFSOC will simply pull the cannon off retiring AC130 aircraft and install them on the Js. The last seven J-models may carry a laser weapon according to Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold.

The AC-130J is a highly modified C-130J aircraft that contains many advanced features. It contains an advanced two-pilot flight station with fully integrated digital avionics. The aircraft is capable of extremely accurate navigation due to the fully integrated navigation systems with dual inertial navigation systems and global positioning system.

The AC-130J is the fourth generation gunship replacing the aging SOF fleet of 37 AC-130H/U/W gunships. AC-130 gunships have an extensive combat history dating to back to Vietnam where gunships destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and were credited with many life-saving close air support missions.

The first AC-130J aircraft is scheduled to begin developmental test and evaluation in January 2014. The first squadron will be located at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., while other locations are to be determined. Initial operational capacity is expected in fiscal 2017 and the last delivery is scheduled for fiscal 2021.

Solid State Combat Lasers are being tested this year

The General Atomics 150-kw Hellads (high energy laser) will be tested this summer at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico The third generation solid state laser is to be demonstrated in 2018 on the USS Paul Foster, a decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer that now serves as the U.S. Navy’s ship-defense test vessel at Port Hueneme in California.

The Gen 3 (third generation laser) has increased electrical-to-optical efficiency, improved beam quality and further reduced size and weight.

The module includes high-power-density lithium-ion batteries, liquid cooling for the laser and batteries, one or more laser unit cells and optics to clean up and stabilize the beam before it enters the platform-specific beam-director telescope, says Davis.

The unit cell is a laser oscillator that produces a single 75-kw beam. Modules can be ganged together to produce a 150- or 300-kw beam. There is no beam-combining, Davis says, as there is in systems that use multiple lower-power fiber lasers.

The Pentagon and several other manufacturers have shifted focus to fiber lasers because they are a commercial technology and have higher electrical-to-optical “wallplug” efficiency than diode lasers previously demonstrated at power levels exceeding 100 kw.

The Gen 3’s efficiency is at the level of fiber lasers, Davis says, adding that the company has worked for several years to improve beam quality and achieved “excellent quality” in the latest tests. Adaptive optics adjust the beam to compensate for atmospheric distortion.

Mockup shows one 75-kw laser unit cell (gold), although the tactical module has room for two, for a 150-kw laser weapon. Credit: Graham Warwick/AW and ST

“Fiber lasers are interesting, but it is a matter of maturity,” says Davis. “We are where fiber may be in five years. We have built several versions of this laser over the last 10 years, and we believe [the Gen 3 system] is affordable as is.”

In addition to the ONR program, GA-ASI is eyeing the U.S. Army’s Boeing High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). Live-fire tests of the HEL MD used a 10-kw industrial fiber laser and the Army intends to upgrade the system to a 60-kw Lockheed Martin fiber laser.

The next step is a 120-kw laser, planned for testing in the early 2020s, and for which GA-ASI plans to propose the Gen 3 system. The Air Force Research Laboratory, meanwhile, is interested in a podded laser weapon, although there is no formal program yet.

Davis says the Gen 3’s size enables an airborne laser module in the 150-kw range to be carried by GA-ASI’s Avenger unmanned aircraft. The UAV has sufficient onboard power to recharge the module’s batteries in flight.

Alternatives for Scaling up combat lasers to 300 kw and then megawatts

In three years the US military could have a prototype 300 kilowatt laser weapon. This would be ten times the power of the 30 kilowatt laser being tested on the USS Ponce. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. of Breaking Defense reports this from a Lockheed engineer.

The Army’s High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator(HEL MD) will improve to a 60 kw system late in 2016. This is up from the current 10 kilowatt laser. Today’s technology will enable fiber lasers to scale to 300 kw. Near term improvement to the underlying technology will enable well beyond 500 kw lasers.

Solid state slab lasers (being developed by the Navy and Northrop) should be able to scale to a total power of 300 kW. This will not require any technological breakthroughs. Supporters of slab SSLs such as Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) believe they could eventually be scaled up further, to perhaps 600 kW. Slab SSLs are not generally viewed as easily scalable to megawatt power levels.

At 30 to 35 percent efficiency — the current cutting edge with fiber-optic lasers — 300 kw of output would require just under a megawatt of electrical power.

The Navy’s LaWs simply sticks together six commercial cutting lasers and points them all at the same target. Lockheed’s technology goes further and combines all the lasers into a single, coherent beam, which allows much sharper focus at long ranges.

Combat Lasers for trucks and jeep size vehicles

Currently the SMSS (squad level unmanned ground vehicle) is unarmed, but there are plans to arm it with either RPG or small missile systems. The current SMSS could be loaded up with 40 to 100 kilowatts of combat lasers but it would make more sense to add 10 to 20 KW of combat lasers and conventional RPG and missiles.

Boeing’s new Compact Laser Weapon System (LWS) breaks down into four parts, each transportable by one or two Marines. Boeing says these components include:

* a battery
* a water-cooled chiller
* a commercially available fiber laser
* an upgraded beam director, weighing 40% less than a previous model.

In total, the system weighs about 650 pounds and would probably be operated by a squad of eight to 12 soldiers or Marines.

Able to be assembled in just 15 minutes, LWS is capable of generating an energy beam of up to 10 kilowatts that can, depending on the power level, be used to acquire, track, and identify a target — or even destroy it — at ranges of at least 22 miles. The weapon is designed specifically to track and attack moving aerial targets such as incoming artillery rounds, and low-flying aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Setting Up a compact laser weapon system at marine squad tactics exercise in Yuma, Arizona. Image Source: USMC.

Within five years the energy density of the batteries could be doubled and the other components should also be further reduced in size to get the system down to 200-300 pounds.

With 10 kilowatt lasers in that size range, 200-300 kilowatt lasers could fit into the truck sized systems.

Railguns for trucks and ships by 2030

BAE Systems officials said the rail gun would have to be scaled down if it were to be mounted on top of the turret of a Future Fighting Vehicle. However, the officials on the AUSA show floor were confident it was possible.

* mach 7 kinetic energy round (twice the muzzle velocity and four times the kinetic energy)
* cheaper round that has no explosives in it so it is safer to store
* the Navy gun is 30 feet (10 meters long) which is the same as the M1 tank gun. It is the power and other systems that need to be fitted to a ground vehicle
* more ammo for deeper magazine
* General Atomic has a larger (almost no miniaturization work needed) mobile land based railgun system proposed that would be multiple mission and focused on destroying missiles and other targets

Railgun on the back of flatbed of a truck during testing. Firing through concrete and metal. This if from the General Atomics video

Image of the navy railgun to be deployed in sea trials in 2016. This gun would be reduced in size for a tank killing railgun for a new ground Vehicle

General Atomics has a vision of a mobile ground based railgun system that involves three heavy trucks. BAE would have to reduce the size and weight of a fighting vehicle gun by about ten times.

Railgun ship testing

In 2016, Naval Sea Systems Command will conduct the first at sea test of its electromagnetic railgun, hurling a guided 44 pound projectile and hypersonic speeds off the coast of Florida, NAVSEA officials said on Tuesday.

The BAE Systems designed test weapon will be mounted on the newly delivered Joint High Speed Vessel USNS Trenton (JHSV-5) and taken to Eglin Air Force Base’s maritime test range off the Florida panhandle late in the summer of 2016. The Navy originally planned to use the JHSV USNS Millinocket (JHSV- 3) for the test.

“It’s a naval surface fire support demonstration, the Navy’s first to engage an over the horizon target [with a railgun],” Capt. Mike Ziv, NAVSEA’s program manager directed energy and electronic warfare program office told attendees at the Navy’ League’s Sea-Air-Space 2015 Exposition.

An artist rendering shows the Office of Naval Research-funded electromagnetic railgun installed aboard the joint high-speed vessel USNS Millinocket (JHSV- 3). US Navy Image

Officials expect to fire 20 shots from the EMRG on board Trenton ; the last five are expected to be aimed to hit targets anchored off the coast.

With the EMRG launcher on the flight deck, the rest of the system comprising the control van and pulsed power – housed in four 20-ft ISO shipping containers – will be placed below deck in Trenton ‘s mission bay. Cables will be routed from the pulsed power up to the gun via an existing flight deck access point. The containers are those used on the test range at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren in Virginia, Capt Ziv noted.

The Florida test will place a static floating target at a range of 25 to 50 nautical miles from the test ship and fire five GPS guided hyper velocity projectiles (HVP) at the target as the final part of 20 planned firings for the railgun at the Eglin range.

“It’s an over the horizon engagement. We’re firing on a ballistic trajectory and guiding into intercepting that target,” he said to reporters following the briefing.

“Eventually when we have a little bit more advancement in the projectile there will be some ability to communicate with [the round].”

As the program develops, the Navy is zeroing in on about 10,000-ton sized guided missile cruisers and destroyers as the anticipated platforms to field the weapons.

NAVSEA is currently conducting an in-depth study of including the railgun on the Zumwalt-class (DDG-1000) guided missile destroyers for the first platform for the weapon.

SOURCES – Breaking Defense, Air force,, reuters