Around for several decades, the technology of combined-fiber, high energy lasers are advancing to the battlefield from laboratory or exercise demonstration. The advent of the production of the technology, advanced battery capabilities and higher laser power—along with a mounting unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) threat—are all combining into more demand and use by the U.S. military. The transition of laser weapon systems to the battlefield brings with it concept of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures that will improve warfighting, said Michael Jirjis, lead, Directed Energy Weapons Experimentation, U.S. Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; Craig Robin, director, Directed Energy Project Office, U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, Redstone Arsenal, Alabama; and Evan Hunt, director, High Energy Lasers and Counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems, Raytheon Intelligence and Space.
The officials spoke during a July 22 Institute for Defense & Government Advancement webinar, Laser Weapons Today and Tomorrow.
Laser technology enables warfighters to engage with little to no collateral damage, Robin noted. That property makes directed energy weapons “even more an attractive technology in my mind,” he said.
The power of lasers has improved—in terms of kilowatts (kW)—growing from the early 5- or 10-kW lasers to 50, 100 or in the future 150 kW or greater. The improved power capabilities increase the “very large or indefinite magazine” that the weapons can have, Jirjis clarified.
“Another benefit that I’ve seen in real time that operators seem to like is the visual feedback that you get to see from the laser actually hitting a drone,” he said. “The thermal properties show up on the cameras and you end up seeing a little bit more of a blooming flare and flame. There is a lot of real-time feedback that the operators get in that immediate effect, and so they know where they’re hitting and when they’re hitting it, which is very beneficial.”
Hunt added that lasers will almost certainly improve positive identification abilities of warfighters, from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to battle damage assessments. “You are giving eyes to operators on the battlefield that traditionally may have needed to call in to air assets or look at the radar,” he offered. “This is a completely revolutionary capability for a lot of operators that didn’t normally have that type of visual ID capability. You can confirm that something is a threat or friendly, or [use it for] ISR. You can actually look at the battlefield and inform your leadership’s decision-making processes. These are really big differences when you start talking about concept of operations compared to normal traditional, kinetic weapon systems. We find ourselves at a really exciting watershed moment in laser technology.”
In addition to harnessing advanced electro-optical sensor and infrared technologies—which “have progressed unbelievably”—Raytheon is leveraging lithium-ion batteries—that are used in the hybrid vehicle industry, the race car industry and in cellphones. They also have improved at “astonishing” rates.
“We leverage that technology to basically charge our energy magazine within a laser weapon,” Hunt explained. “We don’t need to constantly be drawing on power. We just need to recharge a magazine, which then has a number of shots that can be used before you recharge again.”
According to Jirjis, the Air Force is welcoming the lighter, more portable nature of laser weapon systems, especially as the service pursues agile combat employment in its operations.
“The move to solid state lasers has allowed us to move to a more portable, smaller, compact system that ends up being more sustainable in the field,” he said. “It’s a big difference for the Air Force especially as we are starting to consider more agile combat employment.”
Meanwhile, the Army has been conducting training on larger laser weapon systems than they ever have before, Robin emphasized. “We just finished up our first round of training soldiers to operate a 50 kW laser on a Stryker and it was fascinating to see the inputs from those soldiers,” he said. “I really think you’ll see that doctrine or those TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] that we use to employ these lasers is going to expand.”
And while laser energy weapons can be applied to a number of solutions, they match quite well against the growing threat of adversarial unmanned aerial vehicles, the experts said.
“We are just at the early cusp of what drones can and will do,” warned Hunt. “And I am deeply concerned, frankly, about our anti-drone weapon systems keeping up with the rate at which drones themselves will evolve, spurred by a fantastic commercial market.”
Jirjis confirmed that UAVs have increasing capabilities that the U.S. military must be able to face. “You’re also seeing the growing ability [of UAVs] to connect into newer technologies, the expanded range of UAVs, and their increased speeds, and the complex adaptability for swarming technology,” he said. “All of that really adds a challenging layer onto how you prioritize and mitigate those threats.”
Moreover, the sophistication of future adversarial drones may be beyond current U.S. counter-UAV capabilities, Robin stated. “The drones aren’t necessarily going to come from Costco,” he said. “They’re [going to be] made by state actors with great sophistication. And a lot of our existing counter-UAV capabilities rely on the exploitation of the drones themselves, a lot of EW [electronic warfare] to trick them or spoof them or in some way interfere with their operation. The reality is that China and Russia and Iran are not going to have drones that we may have necessarily already exploited. And so, we need some kind agnostic capability in order to address the threats.”
Robin also suggested that lasers would be a good fit outside of the Defense Department. “A lot of the challenge right now from my perspective is that we’ve been shooting drones down for a long time with lasers,” Robin said. “Now, it’s the matter of getting it out of the lab and into the hands of the operators. And I think that space is fairly large of who the operator is, not just the DOD operator, but Homeland Security and other [agencies].”