‘A Golden Age for Collaboration’ on Lasers & Microwaves: But Watch the Cheetos!
When you put cutting-edge tech into the less-than-pristine hands of actual teenaged and twenty-something troops, you get unique feedback you’d never get in the lab, said Donald Schiffler, chief directed energy scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory. For a drone-busting high-powered microwave called THOR, “we thought, well, we should have everything touchscreen-operated… like on your iPhone,” Schiffler told a Booz Allen Hamilton webcast this morning. “That sounds great — except you find out that that doesn’t work for warfighters who are pulling a long shift, because they do things like eat Cheetos while they’re sitting there working, and then the touchscreen does not work.”
That kind of (sticky) hands-on experience is vital, both for the engineers trying to develop better weapons and for the operators trying to get comfortable with new technology, said
Frank Peterkin, Schiffler’s counterpart at the Office of Naval Research. “Trust is going to have to come from contact,” Peterkin said. “The warfighters in those communities have to actually be touching these weapons, using them, seeing them work.”
Getting working weapons into troops’ hands has already increased enthusiasm and demand for the technology, said Craig Robin, senior research scientist for Army Space & Missile Defense Command (SMDC). “I spent the first 15 years of my career walking around in a lab with a laser, saying ‘does anyone want this…’ and the warfighter [kept] going ‘that’s adorable,’” Robin recalled ruefully. “Just recently there’s been a tremendous pull [because] we simply just got out it into the user’s hands and they recognized the value.”
“I’ve been pushing for a long time to get these things out of the lab and into the hands of the warfighter,” said David Stoudt, the moderator of today’s panel, who worked on directed energy as a Navy scientist for 25 years before joining Booz Allen Hamilton in 2015. “[Today,] pretty much in unison, all the services are taking a very serious look at that…and doing so with a lot of collaboration between them. [Even] I wasn’t aware of all the collaboration that we talked about today on the panel.”
There’s been a huge shift over the last few years. The services are working together as never before on lasers and microwaves, all three scientists agreed. “We’re in a little bit of a golden age for collaboration now for directed energy,” Peterkin said.
A Directed Energy Bestiary
The Navy has led the way out of the lab into the field, putting a 30-kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) on the USS Ponce during a Persian Gulf deployment in 2014. Just last May, it test-fired a 150-kW Laser Weapon System Demonstrator (LWSD) from the USS Portland, destroying a target drone.
But all the services are rapidly advancing on multiple types of directed-energy weapon. The three senior scientists on this morning’s panel listed nine different programs across four services. That’s not a comprehensive list, especially since some of these technologies, especially in the high-powered microwave area, are classified.
Robin is working on two Army laser weapons, both of which will field operational prototypes in the next four years:
- The IM-SHORAD (Interim Maneuver Short Range Air Defense) program, which has already mounted anti-aircraft missiles and guns on 8×8 Stryker armored vehicles, will field four Strykers armed with 50-kilowatt drone-killing lasers in 2022.
- The IFPC (Indirect Fire Protection Capability) program is developing a larger laser, in the 100 – 300 kW range, with the power to shoot down artillery rockets and even subsonic cruise missiles. This weapons will be moved from site to site by truck. Prototypes will enter service in 2024. (IFPC is also developing a missile launcher variant).
- The Army is also interested in high-powered microwaves for IFPC and base defense against drones, but it’s leaving that R&D to the Air Force, Craig said. The hope is the Army can just buy whatever system the Air Force develops, avoiding duplication and adding efficiencies of scale that will lower the acquisition cost for both services.
Peterkin, speaking for the Navy, described three laser weapons all headed for testing aboard serving warships, and another on land:
- ODIN (Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy) is the lowest-power version, intended primarily to blind enemy sensors. One was installed on the destroyer USS Dewey earlier this year, but Peterkin said seven more ODINs will go on seven other ships over the next three years, testing how the same technology fits on different vessels.
- The higher-powered HELIOS (High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance) will add a drone-killing capability. It’ll be integrated on a destroyer next year. The base model outputs 60 kW but the plan is to scale up to 150.
- The most potent of the trio is LWSD (Laser Weapons System Demonstrator) that Portland fired in May, with an output of around 150 kW.
- Meanwhile, the Marine Corps – with a major assist from the Army – has developed CLAWS (Compact Laser Weapons System), a prototype drone-killing laser intended to go on 4×4 tactical vehicles like the JLTV. It’s already in field testing.
Schiffler, speaking for the Air Force, listed three:
- THOR (Tactical-High Power Operational Responder) is a microwave weapon, deployable in a standard 20-foot cargo container, to defend forward air bases against swarms of small drones. It’s headed for field demonstrations at White Sands Missile Range – the PhDs who developed it have already handed it to the troops – and then will deploy abroad for an operational demonstration, joining Raytheon laser and microwave weapons already in place.
- “Hijinks” is another microwave weapon, developed jointly by the Air Force and the Navy. This program is still in the science & technology stage, and I’ve found very little detail on it so far, not even the official acronym.
- SHIELD (Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator) is trying to develop a laser compact enough to fit in an under-wing pod, yet powerful enough to shoot down an incoming anti-aircraft missile. A ground-based version successfully shot down air-to-air missiles last year, but an airborne model would have to keep its beam on target despite constant vibration and high-speed airflow. SHIELD may well be the most challenging program on this list.
While none of these programs is easy, the Army in some ways has the simplest problem to solve. It can mount new weapons on a whole fleet of fairly roomy vehicles, from 4×4 Humvees to 8×8 Strykers to 10-wheeler semis, and it doesn’t need tremendous power output against a lot of the threats it faces, such as artillery rockets and mini-drones.
“From the Army’s perspective, [with] the technology we have today, we can put a 50-kW laser onto a Stryker. A 50-kW laser has military utility,” Craig said. By contrast, he said, the Navy worries more about cruise missiles moving at hundreds of miles per hour, which requires power outputs in the hundreds of kilowatts: That’s technology the services are definitely collaborating on, but they haven’t built it yet.
The Navy also has to integrate its new weapons on ships, which, while larger than Army trucks, are already crammed with complex systems. Destroyers especially have little room or spare electrical power for new technology: The Navy has tested its lasers so far on amphibious transport ships, like Ponce and Princeton. Just integrating the laser with a ship’s electronic and software controls – the combat system – is a daunting technical task. Only the Air Force’s challenge, getting SHIELD to work on a plane in flight, is harder.