Laser weapons use high power lasers to damage or destroy adversary equipment, facilities, and personnel. The technology provides major advantages for military applications due to High precision and rapid on-target effect, precise and scalable effects, Avoidance of collateral damage caused by fragmenting ammunition, Low logistics overhead and minimum costs per firing.
Laser weapons have already been employed on warships and military trucks. In 2014, US Navy’s deployed 30-kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) on USS Ponce, the first laser weapon to have attained Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by virtue of being deployed in a combat theater. The system, offers military leaders precision accuracy at cost as low as a dollar per shot. ONR showed off a video in which the LaWS system — mounted on the ship’s super structure above the bridge — disabled a small Scan Eagle-sized UAV, detonated a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and burned out the engine of a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB). Now they being planned to be deployed on Aircrafts and drones.
A truck-fired 50 kW laser weapon — an upgrade of the lumbering HEL-MTT — will be test fired in 2018. A 100 kW weapon on a more mobile vehicle — perhaps an 8×8 Stryker or tracked Bradley — will be test-fired in 2022. Currently the army is testing 5 to 10 kilowatt weapons on trucks and the Stryker. Current weapons are targeting quadcopters and mortars. Army is making progress to field viable DE weapon systems designed to counter rockets, artillery, and mortars (C-RAM) and address certain types of short-range air defense (SHORAD) threats. Moving up in power will mean being able to take out helicopters, low flying planes and possibly cruise missiles.
“Laser weapons are no longer a technological problem, It’s one of integration at the service level,” according to Lockheed executives. “The technologies now exist,” said Paul Shattuck, company director for Directed Energy Systems. “They can be packaged into a size, weight, power and thermal which can be fit onto relevant tactical platforms, whether it’s a ship, whether it’s a ground vehicle or whether it’s an airborne platform. “That doesn’t mean that giant city-melting lasers are on their way. Right now, the weapons are limited to the 15-30 KW scale; going much further requires figuring out how to deal with atmospheric interference, an issue which becomes more complicated with weapons mounted on airborne systems.”
US is not alone in working to perfecting laser weapons. Russia, UK, China and other countries also have similar programs.
The UK Ministry of Defence has officially awarded a £30m contract to produce a prototype laser weapon. The aim is to see whether “directed energy” technology could benefit the armed forces, and is to culminate in a demonstration of the system in 2019. The contract was picked up by a consortium of European defence firms comprising the companies MBDA, Qinetiq, Leonardo-Finmeccanica GKN, Arke, BAE Systems and Marshall ADG.
China too is involved in the work on laser weapons. In 2014, it was reported that an experiment by the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics resulted in the downing of a small drone hit from a distance of two kilometers.” China, presented its Silent Hunter laser system at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in the United Arab Emirates in February 2017. The system is capable of disabling car engines at a distance of one mile and has a capacity of 50-70 kilowatts.
US Army to develop laser weapons by 2023
The US Army is working on developing offensive and defensive directed-energy laser weapons to enhance military capabilities. U.S. Army representative Mary J. Miller said that American armed forces will be equipped with high-energy laser weapons by the year 2023. Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Miller said the Army is committed to developing offensive and defensive directed-energy weapons, including high-energy lasers. Lockheed Martin has already demonstrated a high-energy laser capable of burning holes in a Ford F-150 at distances of more than a mile under a $25 million contract.
Lasers have been promised for a long time, but they’ve never held up and delivered what was asked for, so the operators are rightfully skeptical,” Miller said to lawmakers. However, the Army is currently testing laser weapons in “operational environments” with the goal of delivering reliable directed-energy weapon systems within 10 years. “We have to make sure the lasers work and do the full set of scopes against the threats we project,” Miller said. “And those threats include the counter-rockets, counter-artillery and counter-mortar as well as [unmanned aerial vehicle] and cruise missile threats.” The weapons are scheduled to be developed and integrated into the Indirect Fire Protection Capability programme by 2023.
The US Army has already revealed its high-energy laser mobile demonstrator (HEL MD) programme. The HEL MD incorporates a laser and vehicle-mounted beam director, in addition to enhanced multi-mode radar (surrogate radar) support. Lockheed won the $25 million HEL MD contract from the Army with the aim of delivering a working prototype 60-kilowatt fiber-optic laser by Dec. 2016. The company’s 30-kilowatt ATHENA laser capable of burning holes in a Ford F-150 at distances of more than a mile, is now a success. Lockheed Martin is now working to double the power of its ATHENA laser by and keep the entire laser gun small enough to install aboard a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck.
U.S. Army’s Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI) project
Lockheed Martin Laser and Sensor Systems (Bothell, Wash., U.S.A.) received US$14 million under the RELI program in 2010 to design a HEL weapons system that works a bit like an inverse prism, using spectral beam combining of multiple custom fiber lasers with slightly different wavelengths to create a single high-power beam.
Lockheed demonstrated a 30 kW version of its electric fiber laser in January 2014, the “highest power ever documented while retaining beam quality and electrical efficiency,” according to the company. The laser system uses 50 percent less electricity than more conventional solid-state designs, which means it requires less cooling and thus takes up less space.
In February 2014, the U.S. Army followed up on this successful testing with a US$25 million contract for Lockheed to take the fiber system to “weapons-grade” at 60 kW. Lockheed claims that a 60 kW system is powerful enough to down fast-moving targets as well as mission systems on military platforms including aircraft, trucks and ships. The next step is to integrate the fiber laser on the Army’s HEL MD. The company expects to reach 100 kW within the next year or two.
Vehicle-mounted Boeing HEL MD tested successfully
The Army is also developing a mobile high-energy solid-state laser program called the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, or HEL MD. The weapon mounts a 10 kilowatt laser on top of a tactical truck. HEL MD weapons developers, who rotate the laser 360-degrees on top of a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, say the Army plan is to increase the strength of the laser up to 100 Kilowatts, service officials said.
“The supporting thermal and power subsystems will be also upgraded to support the increasingly powerful solid state lasers. These upgrades increase the effective range of the laser or decrease required lase time on target,” an Army statement said
In November of 2013, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command used the HEL MD, a vehicle-mounted high energy laser, to successfully engage more than 90 mortar rounds and several unmanned aerial vehicles in flight at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
The prototype HEL MD system incorporates a commercial-off-the-shelf 10 kW solid-state fiber laser at an infrared (IR) wavelength around one micron. Fiber lasers typically require less power to maintain high beam quality and are more compact than other HEL designs. The laser and beam control system are mounted on a truck adapted to carry the laser and its accompanying cooling system. The adaptive-optics system, a subset of the beam control system, uses mirrors, high-speed processors and high-speed optical sensors to reshape and align the beam so it focuses directly on the target in real time.
The Army and General Dynamics Land Systems are developing a Stryker-mounted laser weapon aimed at better arming the vehicle to incinerate enemy drones or threatening ground targets. Concept vehicles are now being engineered and tested at the Army’s Ft. Sill artillery headquarters as a way to quickly develop the weapon for operational service.
Russian Vehicle-Mounted Laser
Russia is developing vehicle mounted lasers for targeting threats like UAVs which can otherwise evade surface to air missiles.
Russian military science professor and the president at the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Konstantin Sivkov has suggested that the Russian Armed Forces might have already passed into service the laser systems for jamming tank armament command systems. “There might also be laser weapons for the sea-based ballistic missile defense and for jamming optronic surveillance and target homing guidance equipment,” Sivkov said.
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