MBDA Germany will demonstrate high energy combat lasers in 2017

MBDA Germany has edged closer to fielding a new deployable laser weapon system (LWS) following a series of day/night all-weather trials.

  • Trials focus on beam guidance and tracking system
  • High energy laser expected to be demonstrated in 2017

Conducted at the Bundeswehr’s military training ground at Putlos on the Baltic Sea from 4-14 October, the trials were specifically designed to test the beam guidance and tracking system of the new LWS demonstrator in a sequence of simulated engagements of airborne targets. Firing of the high-energy laser was not scheduled for these tests, nor was an acquisition sensor deployed.

Quadcopters fitted with GPS transmitters served as airborne targets for the trials, performing a variety of dynamic manoeuvres at different ranges to prove the functionality of the overall system and the performance capability of the LWS’s improved tracking system. The targets were preset, scanned with the laser target illuminator, and an aim point was held on the target for an extended period to simulate destruction of the threat.

MBDA has more than 30 years’ experience working on high energy laser activities, conducting extensive research and development on a variety of programmes and related activities across Europe.

MBDA is examining laser-armament options for naval and air applications as well as ground-based mobile laser effector concepts with capacities in excess of 100kW, 360-degree coverage and open system architecture for close and intermediate-range protection against micro UAVs and RAM (rocket and mortar) targets.

MBDA Germany’s new laser weapon demonstrator. The green ‘beam’ is the illumination laser, not the high-energy laser effector. Source: MBDA

US Combat lasers deploying over the next 5 years

U.S. military officials said “directed energy” is near the point where they could use it on the battlefield.

The goal is to reduce the size and weight of existing lasers, something the Pentagon has been trying to do for the past decade.

The US Missile Defense Agency plans to conduct “a lot of” testing with lasers mounted on Reaper drones “over the next few years” culminating with a “low-power laser demonstrator” project in 2021, Syring said. Pentagon officials hope to decide what that demonstrator might look like “in a few years.” The goal of that project is to fly a powerful laser at a high altitude that can track possibly kill a missile soon after it is launched, during its boost phase.

In addition to lasers on drones, the Army is eying lasers on the ground to shoot down missiles.

Within 5 years, the military expects to demonstrate shooting down ballistic missiles in the boost phase.

In 2012, the US Navy initiated the SSL Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program, in which industry teams led by BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon, among others, competed to develop a shipboard laser with a beam power of 100 kW to 150 kW by 2016.

Boosting beam power further—to something like 200 kW or 300 kW—could permit a laser to counter at least some ASCMs. Even stronger beam powers—on the order of at least several hundred kW, if not one megawatt (MW) or more—could improve a laser’s effectiveness against ASCMs (Anti-Ship Cruise Missile) and enable it to counter ASBMs (Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile.

By 2020, it should be possible to demonstrate a 250-500 kW laser weapon system, one appropriate for deployment on current surface combatants and capable of being a game changer in the Navy’s struggle to address the growing A2/AD challenge.

The Army’s Avenger project is a Humvee-mounted system that fires Stinger missiles at cruise missiles, with lasers or other forms of directed energy.

Lockheed acquired Aculight, a Bothell, Washington-based company that builds lasers, in 2008 to better position itself to win Pentagon work. The company has also been self-funding laser development work and Lockheed is working on a 60-kilowatt laser for the Army.

“We expect to see the power levels continue to increase,” Graham said. “The beauty of this is it’s still remaining pretty nice and compact.”

Shooting down a missile requires more than the laser itself, it involves steering mirrors, adaptive optics and software that can track a target.

Both Lockheed and Boeing – which has built a high-power laser for the Army Stryker vehicles – showed off small drones with holes burned through them by low-power lasers. To destroy a missile screaming toward outer space, a much more powerful, “couple hundred kilowatts” laser is needed

The Navy would want to deploy tactical and point defense lasers on ships in 2020-2025 and then move up to megawatt lasers on aircraft carriers for area defense.

The Navy laser development industry teams are led by BAE Systems Plc (BAESY), Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) and Raytheon Co. (RTN), to field a more powerful weapon, possibly by 2021.

The approximate laser power levels needed to affect certain targets:

• Lasers with a power level of about 10 kW might be able to counter some UAVs at short range, particularly “soft” UAVs (i.e., those with design features that make them particularly susceptible to laser damage).
• 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.

The Navy and DOD are developing three principal types of lasers for potential use on Navy surface ships:
• fiber solid state lasers (SSLs),
• slab SSLs, and
• free electron lasers (FELs).

All three types are electrically powered

Fiber Solid State Lasers (Fiber SSLs)

Fiber solid state lasers (SSLs) are widely used in industry—tens of thousands are used by auto and truck manufacturing firms for cutting and welding metal. Consequently, they are considered to be a very robust technology.

Laser Weapon System (LaWS)

One fiber SSL prototype demonstrator developed by the Navy, called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), had a beam power of 33 kW. The Navy at one point envisioned LaWS being used for operations such as disabling or reversibly jamming EO sensors, countering UAVs and EO guided missiles, and augmenting radar tracking. The Navy envisioned installing LaWS on a ship either on its own mount or as an add-on to an existing Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) mount. The Navy funded work to integrate LaWS with CIWS, to support the latter option

Tactical Laser System

Another Navy fiber SSL effort is the Tactical Laser System (TLS)—a laser with a beam power of 10 kW that is designed to be added to the Mk 38 25 mm machine guns installed on the decks of many Navy surface ships.25 TLS would augment the Mk 38 machine gun in countering targets such as small boats; it could also assist in providing precise tracking of targets. The Navy in March 2011 awarded a $2.8 million contract to BAE to develop a prototype of the TLS over a 15-month period. Boeing is collaborating with BAE on the project. The TLS effort was initiated following a January 2008 incident involving Iranian small boats.

SOURCES – Janes IHS, MBDA, Defense One, CSBA, FAS, Lexington Institute, Congressional Report