US Military Presents: The Return of the Laser

The USA initiated the development of a Laser-based missile defense system as far back as 1983. In recent years, the US military has had some significant accomplishments in this field and intends to mount high-power lasers on small platforms

The US Army's High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (Photo: US Army)

Laser weapons are making the headlines again and apparently, US DOD, like other military organizations and institutions, continues to pursue this activity. The development of directed energy weapons like Lasers, to be mounted on a variety of platforms, is a high priority for different organizations, including US DOD. The technology has reached a point where Lasers no longer belong in the realm of futuristic sci-fi action movies, but are destined to become an important element in military missions and combat operations in the air, at sea and on the ground. Apparently, energy weapons are a highly important category in the context of the future battlefield.

The field of Lasers in general as well as the potential military use of Lasers started gaining momentum in the late 1950s. The first working Laser was built in 1960 – it was a ruby Laser, developed at the Hughes Research Laboratories in the USA. In the following years, the gas Laser was developed and then the first semiconductor Laser. The Laser device was intended to generate a chain of energy transmissions (using different techniques – electrical, optical, chemical, thermal, radio waves, magnetic, pressure and even a Laser exciting another Laser – some of which are still under development) at the end of which a forced, narrow, precise and long-range emission takes place. The active medium out of which the Laser energy is released may include gas or multiple gases, a solid crystal, chemical compounds and semiconductors whose operation is identical to that of modern LEDs.

Today, Lasers are used for numerous functions owing to their ability to generate highly-focused energy and their high efficiency. Typical applications include medicine, communication, science, energy and various military applications.

One of the primary uses planned for Laser weapons in the past was in the context of the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known unofficially as "Star Wars". It was the 1983 ambitious initiative of US President Ronald Reagan to develop a hermetic missile defense umbrella for the purpose of neutralizing the Soviet nuclear threat faced by the USA. One of the primary active elements of this program should have been satellites fitted with Laser systems, intended to intercept enemy missiles. In addition to the space-borne element, the system was also to include ground-based and airborne high-power Lasers and anti-missile missiles.

The opponents of the program claimed, even back then, that the system was too costly and impossible to manufacture. The ambitious plan was never implemented. It was halted mainly because the need for it diminished following the disintegration of the USSR in the late 1980s. The SDI program cost the USA not less than US$ 25 billion.

Employment of Lasers by the IDF

IDF used Lasers for target designation and range finding as far back as during the first Lebanon War (1982). Other uses of Lasers were intended to enable guided munitions to precisely home onto their designated targets. However, the primary program involving the use of Lasers was the Nautilus program, in which the Israeli defense establishment was involved cooperatively with development and manufacturing elements in the USA.

Project Nautilus was intended, at the outset, to provide IDF with a solution for intercepting the Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah out of Southern Lebanon into the Israeli population centers in the Upper Galilee. Initially, a high-power Laser weapon prototype was developed. The Laser on which the system was based was a chemical deuterium-fluoride Laser producing medium-wavelength infrared radiation. Command and control were provided by a spotting Radar and a tracking system based on a laser designator in the same radiation range.

In the trials, the Laser beam successfully intercepted Katyusha rockets and subsequently also mortar shells in mid-flight. When the development process was completed, the system turned out to be stationary, cumbersome, too bulky and difficult to operate considering these characteristics. Pursuant to the massive firing of Qassam rockets out of the Gaza Strip, the Israeli defense establishment consolidated a concept according to which the Laser system might provide effective protection against these rockets, and development was accelerated. When IMOD realized, in 2006, that the Pentagon had decided to stop the funding for the project, the project was discontinued. The prompt development of the Iron Dome system and the successful employment thereof during Operation Protective Edge did nothing to stop the debate, in Israel and elsewhere, regarding the potential effectiveness of Laser weapons such as the Nautilus system.

Weapons of the Future

Senior officials who spoke at the Missile and Space Symposium held recently by the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) stressed, once again, the importance of the development of directed-energy weapons to the future of the US military. These speakers estimated that the use of Lasers will dramatically decrease the costs associated with standard kinetic fire. The cost of missile, rocket, artillery and mortar shell fire is expected to be higher than the use of Lasers. Combined with suitable power sources, Laser weapons may never run out of ammunition. Even the operational cost should, eventually, be significantly cheaper.

In recent years, the US Army has had some significant accomplishments with Laser weapon demonstrators, and now has plans to mount, within the near future, high-power Lasers on smaller platforms.

In early 2005, the US Army entered a cooperative alliance with the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office as well as with USAF and the US Navy, to develop high-power solid state Lasers that would possess a power output of 100 kilowatts.

In 2006, the US Army initiated the High Energy Laser Tactical Demonstrator (HEL TD) program. It involves a Laser beam control system mounted on a giant truck. The objective was to develop a 100 kilowatt Laser while at the same time developing the beam control system, and at some point – combine the two elements on a truck, but as it turned out, the solid-state Laser technology had not matured at the rate hoped for. The 100 kilowatt Laser was too bulky to fit on a truck. Instead, the US Army acquired an off-the-shelf 10 kilowatt optical fiber Laser intended originally for welding and mounted it on the truck. The Boeing Corporation won the contract of integrating the systems.

The trials of the HEL TD began in 2016 and were completed in 2016. During the trials, conducted at the White Sands trial field, the system successfully intercepted two small (Class 2) UAVs and 60mm mortar shells.

The US Army also tested the Laser system in trials conducted in April of this year. In those trials, the system was combined with other systems in order to demonstrate their effectiveness in combat situations. The Laser succeeded in destroying targets that included a small quadcopter as well as mobile computers. The ability to engage and destroy mobile computers was intended to represent the ability to engage command and control centers.

The US Army will soon take delivery of a 60 kilowatt Laser developed in the context of RELI (Robust Electric Laser Initiative). This Laser will be integrated with the existing beam control system of the HEL TD. The new system will be designated HELMTT – High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck. The US Army expects the new Laser to be delivered by the Lockheed Martin Corporation during the second quarter of 2017. The Army intends to deploy the Laser on the ground so that it may be able to engage targets within ranges that provide a solution to the tactical needs.

Earlier this year, the US Army initiated an activity designated HEL TVD (High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator), where a 100 kilowatt Laser is to be mounted on medium-size tactical trucks – as opposed to the giant trucks intended to carry the system originally. This effort is fully coordinated and consistent with the requirement from the field – to have a Laser weapon system mounted on a medium-size vehicle that may be driven around the close battlefield. Apparently, the warfighters prefer the Laser weapon system to be mobilized on such AFVs as the Stryker and Bradley.

The system being developed should provide a solution for UAV and cruise missile threats. Subsequently, the system will be upgraded so as to provide a solution for rockets, artillery and mortar shells. When the technology has matured, the planned system will be able to engage missiles during the boost phase.

Over the coming years, numerous trials will be conducted on Lasers, some of which are to be installed on the Reaper UAV. Hopefully, a Laser demonstrator with a higher power output may be developed to operate at a high altitude and possess a discrimination capability, as well as serving as a prototype for testing the probability of a missile boost-phase defense capability.

In 2018, a Low Power Laser Demonstrator will be selected. Development efforts will be initiated in several directions, intended to lead new ideas and developments to a mature status.

While the Pentagon continues to develop Laser weapons, a senior DOD official has recently tempered expectations in this regard. Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L), said that 30 years of Laser weapon development led him to the conclusion that such systems are not the 'panacea' they were expected to be. According to Kendall, these systems would be useful if they could achieve the necessary Laser beam power as well as reasonable size and weight, but they were not yet at the point enabling a decision as to where and how high-power Lasers should be employed as part of the military arsenal.

Kendall said DOD currently has a number of prototype programs going for Laser weapon systems based on different technologies, which should culminate in about three years. At that point DOD will be able to make a decision on what to take forward in the field of Laser weapons. Lasers still face some serious limitations having to do with the weather, the transition of the beam through the atmosphere, as well as the possibility that the enemy could manages to develop hardening capabilities against Laser radiation. In one area, Laser weapons could be helpful even now, and that is countering small, civilian unmanned aerial systems (quadcopter/multirotor platforms), such as those being used by ISIS and other elements. To intercept such targets, the Laser weapon does not have to possess a high power output.

Along with the US activity, there is no doubt that other military organizations and possibly even countries around the world are devoting serious efforts to the development of new, effective high-power Laser weapons. Development initiatives that had been frozen, trials that had been cancelled and contracts that had been deferred over the last decade are currently having a new lease on life.

The technology that has evolved meanwhile, along with the ever-increasing needs and the changes in the character of warfare require the introduction of new measures into the battlefield. These new measures should provide solutions to annoying threats that are intensifying in the context of asymmetrical warfare, including rocket launches, mortar fire and the employment of various RPAs/UAVs – particularly the quadcopter/multirotor threat that evolves quickly right in front of our eyes.