High Energy Laser and RF weapon roadmap by early 2018

Pentagon directed energy plan was delivered internally in the fall of 2017 and will be fully completed by early 2018. This will be an update to a roadmap made in 2015.

They will be creating a detailed plan for high-energy lasers and radio frequency weapons.

AFRL (US Air Force Research Lab) plans to test the laser on a tactical fighter jet by 2021. They have issued contracts as part of AFRL’s Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, and these will be a major step forward in the maturation of protective airborne laser systems.

The AFRL has split the SHiELD program into three separate development contracts:

1 a USD39 million contract, awarded to Northrop Grumman in August 2016, for the development and production of the SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE) – the beam control system which characterises the flight environment for atmospheric disturbances that could distort the laser beam, acquires and tracks incoming targets, determines an aim point for the laser, then ‘shapes’ and focuses the outgoing beam on the target;

2. a USD90 million contract, awarded to Boeing in December 2016, for the Laser Pod Research and Development (LPRD) component – the LPRD contract provides for system integration into a pod, and integration of that pod onto an aircraft;

3. the USD26.3 million contract, awarded to Lockheed Martin in early November for the development of the LANCE high-energy fiber laser.

LANCE, coupled with the STRAFE beam control system will be integrated into the LPRD pod, along with the systems required to operate it, which will then be integrated onto the tactical fighter testbed aircraft and subsequently trialled.

AFRL’s Self-Protected High-Energy Laser Demonstration (Shield) is looking at 100kw system by 2021-2022.

While the LPRD pod is ostensibly responsible for thermal management of the laser, the primary power source will be from the plane.

1 HP = 745 Watts.
40% laser efficiency and a beam strength of 60 Kilowatts would need 150 KW or 201 horsepower.
40% laser efficiency and a beam strength of 150 Kilowatts would need 375 KW or 500 horsepower.

Higher energy density batteries and supercapacitors will also help lower the weight and cost of laser and direct energy weapons.

Research firm Technavio last year predicted the Chinese would surpass the U.S. in research and development spending on laser systems by 2022.

In 2018, the Navy is expected to test a 150-kilowatt electric laser weapon. The high-energy laser weapon is being developed by Northrop Grumman to protect ships from drones, boats and enemy missiles.

The Army recently took delivery of a 60-kilowatt laser system from Lockheed that will be put on combat vehicles. Also, in August Lockheed did tests for the Army on a 30-kilowatt Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) laser weapon system that shot down five drones. ATHENA is so powerful it can burn a hole in truck from a mile away.

Experts point out that a decade ago, the solid-state laser technology was bigger than many of the combat vehicles.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency requested defense contractors to submit proposals for drones equipped with a high-energy laser weapon system that would be compact and designed to intercept missiles in the boost phase. It would be used to bring down ballistic missiles fired by North Korea that are a threat to the U.S. or its allies.

Scaling Fiber combat lasers

Lockheed built a 30-kW system using internal funds to demonstrate the feasibility of combining the beams from multiple fiber lasers while maintaining beam quality and electrical efficiency. The modular technology allows the laser to scale up to power levels beyond 100 kW. After the 2017 demo, the Army plans to upgrade the HEL MD to 100 kW and could do this simply by adding modules.

Generating the laser beam by diode-pumping a long optical fiber results in higher beam quality and electrical efficiency but less power than solid-state devices using slabs of laser crystal as the gain medium. This requires the beams from multiple fibers to be combined efficiently to form a single high-power beam. Lockheed says its laser system can achieve 40% efficiency, reducing the power-generation and cooling requirements for the overall weapon system.

The 30-kW Aladin demo system had around 100 fiber-laser modules. The 60-kW prototype for the Army has fewer, higher-power, kilowatt-class fiber lasers. “It’s almost 1 for 1 [lasers vs. kilowatts]. You can tack on 5-10%. That’s one of the big advantages of spectral beam combining,” says Afzal. On the end of each laser module is a delivery fiber that terminates in the beam-combiner box. This outputs a single high-power beam to the weapon system’s laser-beam director turret.

The production laser modules are more rugged. The truck-mounted HEL MD has been tested against mortars and unmanned aircraft with a 10-kW industrial fiber laser, but range and lethality was limited. After demonstration of the 60-kW system in 2017, plans call for tests of the 100-kW version by 2022.