No longer the stuff of science fiction, laser technology is progressing rapidly. Throughout the services, officials are banking on new directed energy weapon systems, which promise to offer the military precision strike at a low cost for both defensive and offensive missions.
At Special Operations Command, its program executive office for rotary wing is working alongside the Army’s program manager for Apache attack helicopters to test a directed energy weapon on an Apache this summer.
“There is absolutely a niche I believe for use of directed energy weapons,” said Col. John Vannoy, SOCOM’s program manager for rotary wing. “The lens we are looking at this through right now is: ‘Is it feasible to do this?’ We’re not at the point where we’ve laid out a business case to advance it.”
The command envisions using a laser weapon to destroy vehicles or generators versus sending in a missile that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said during an industry conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association in Tampa, Florida.
Vannoy’s office and the Army’s Apache office have entered into a cooperative research and development agreement with Raytheon to put a podded laser on the aircraft, he said.
“We really want to understand the environment on the wing, the beam quality we can get off the wing and the ability to beam steer and keep power on a target,” he said.
Environmental factors such as dust could affect beam quality. In addition, the vibrations on an Apache’s wing could affect steering, he said.
Vannoy did not disclose a specific timeframe for the test or when results would be made public.
The effort to equip an Apache with a laser is still in its infancy, he said. “I wouldn’t say that we’re at the tipping point and you’re going to see a Star Wars-like effect or a Death Star laser hanging off the side of a rotary wing aircraft,” he said.
A directed energy weapon could also be mounted on an MH-60 Black Hawk, he noted.
Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said based on the relatively small size of a helicopter the laser would likely have between 15 and 30 kilowatts of power.
“That would pack a pretty good punch” at short ranges against a soft target, he said.
If SOCOM decides to move forward with the effort to equip a laser on a helicopter, PEO rotary wing would work closely with its fixed-wing counterparts in the command, Vannoy said.
Currently, PEO fixed wing is working to outfit an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship with a directed energy weapon.
“We communicate between the two offices daily,” Vannoy said. “There will be limited redundancy. We’ll be working together to advance that. But their requirement, I would expect … [it] would be different. They’ve got a larger capacity on a C-130 than we do.”
AFSOC has been planning to put a laser on the gunship for years. Officials recently said the command is on track to equip the aircraft with a laser weapon by the end of the decade.
Working alongside Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren in Virginia, the service recently wrapped up the first phase of a two-part study that will give the command greater clarity on the maturity of commercially available systems and potential design concepts, said Lt. Col. John DiSebastian, director of fixed-wing tech insertion at SOCOM.
AFSOC plans to use commercially available technology to develop different parts of the laser — such as the power source or beam director — but the command will be the lead integrator of the system, he said.
“We’re not looking for a single company to come in and take the lead. We’re looking for individual components where the government will control the interfaces,” he said. Similar to “our previous gunships, we would put one capability on and then grow it and then add another and build upon it.”
Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, AFSOC commander, has made the development of the laser his pet project. During an industry conference hosted by CSBA in June, he noted that the system is often called the “Heithold laser” because he talks about it so often.
When developed, the weapon will be a game changer, but for now it is critical that the command can begin development and testing, he said.
“It’s going to be a little sloppy. It’s not going to be real, real precise at first. But you know what? If you give industry partners a challenge they’ll take it … and they’ll make it better,” he said. “But you got to start.”
The goal is to kick off the program in fiscal year 2017, with a flight test in 2020, DiSebastian said.
AFSOC is still determining how powerful it wants the laser to be, he said. The system will range from 60 kilowatts to 150 kilowatts and will be outfitted in the Ghostrider’s 30mm gunport, he said.
SOCOM is currently waiting for the results of phase two of the Dahlgren study, which is slated for completion in August, he said. That will give officials more information on cost, schedule and capability.
While the program hasn’t had any hiccups, the biggest hurdle will be drafting an appropriate funding strategy, he said.
“We’re on a path. It’s just whether or not the department agrees that we are at the proper maturity. So we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and try to push too far beyond the bounds of what is currently available,” he said.
Following the release of an official acquisition strategy, AFSOC will solicit a request for proposals from industry, he said.
In its fiscal year 2017 unfunded requirements priority list, AFSOC asked Congress to allocate $120 million for the effort, Gunzinger said.
“I hope the Congress does find the resources to fund it because this could be the first high-powered operational directed energy weapon system DoD fields,” he said.
Laser technology is mature enough for such an endeavor, he said.
“The current state of the art of laser technology considering the power, the cooling, the size, the weight of lasers, is frankly a good fit for an AC-130 gunship-sized aircraft,” he said.
While there might be some technical challenges when SOCOM begins integrating components, it will be more a matter of engineering than science, he said. Funding is the biggest uncertainty.
“The problem is more a question of obtaining adequate funding than it is the technology itself unlike 10 years ago where there was a lot of basic science yet to be done,” Gunzinger said.
The Marine Corps is also developing directed energy weapons, said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command.
“From an aircraft side, we’re looking at putting lasers on anything we can get” them on, he said.
The service is already using the technology on its CH-53 aircraft, which is equipped with a directed infrared countermeasures system, he said. It has “the ability to defeat weapons coming at our aircraft. … We plan on putting that on all our assault aircraft and that to me is a tremendous capability, much better than we’ve ever had in the past to be able to defeat those threats.”
The Marine Corps would also like to equip its inventory of KC-130 aircraft with directed energy weapons, he said.
Northrop Grumman, Boeing, General Atomics, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are the leaders in laser technology, according to a study by Govini, an analytics firm with offices in Arlington, Virginia, and San Francisco. Investments in directed energy grew by 23 percent in fiscal year 2015 compared to the previous four-year average, reaching a total of approximately $600 million, the report said.
The report called directed energy weapons the “flagship initiative” of the Pentagon’s third offset strategy, which is intended to maintain the United States’ military superiority through investments in emerging technology.
It is also meant to develop technology that can lead to cost advantages for the United States while imposing a cost burden on the enemy, Gunzinger said.
Directed energy weapons “could help counter enemy air and missile salvos at much less cost than if we simply continue to use very expensive kinetic interceptors only,” he said.
Lasers have long been in development and a system may soon become a program of record, he said.
“There is generally an acknowledgement that we are right on the cusp of seeing these technologies leap over what’s called the ‘Valley of Death’ which exists between science and technology projects and actual acquisition programs,” Gunzinger said. “I think the gunship laser in particular is going to be the first one.”
Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Materiel Command, urged laser developers to not repeat mistakes that plagued previous development efforts, such as the airborne laser program, which Pawlikowski once oversaw. The megawatt laser program, which was canceled in 2009, faced major cost overruns and schedule slippages.
“I want to make sure that we don’t have another five- or eight-year development program that we told everybody we were going to do in three to four,” she said. “It’s so vitally important that we continue this path of expectation management and we target for something that is achievable within the bounds of the state of technology as we see it today.”
The airborne laser program used toxic chemicals to produce the laser, which gave it enormous power but made it expensive, Gunzinger said. Additionally, it required a platform the size of a Boeing 747 to operate. While most research currently focuses on solid-state lasers that use electricity, “never say never” that the pendulum could swing back in favor of chemical-based systems, he said.
“Technology has continued to evolve with those systems,” he said. “I could see the potential applications for chemical lasers on, say, base defense, perhaps.”
One of the most high-profile laser efforts in the military is the deployment of the Navy’s 30-kilowatt laser on board the USS Ponce. Adm. Bill Moran, the vice chief of naval operations, said recently that the Navy will perform a shipboard test of a 150-kilowatt laser weapon system in the near future.
There are lessons that can be applied from the Navy’s system to the AC-130J effort, Gunzinger said. For instance, crewmembers on the Ponce found that the laser could also be used as a sensor, he said.
“It wasn’t just the question of, ‘Well, it only has utility when it is acting as a defensive weapon.’ They found they could use it to meet other needs as well,” he said. For the AC-130J, the optics on that laser could be used as a sensor as well.
While the military is working on the development of directed energy weapons, it must begin investing in counter-laser systems, Gunzinger noted.
“We need to think about how we are going to counter enemy-directed energy weapons and not just how we could use them to our benefit in the future,” he said. “Frankly, that could in the future be the harder problem. How do we defend our forces and our capabilities against directed energy weapons when they become widely proliferated?”
It is likely that other countries are at least thinking about such technology, he said. They could be developed relatively soon, he added.
“We’re not talking 20 years,” he said. “It could be much sooner than that.”
Directed energy weapons could become as readily available as precision-guided munitions are today, he said.
“Back in the ‘90s … we were just about the only kids on the block with a large inventory of PGMs,” he said. “Now we’re worried about how we’re going to defend against salvos of PGMs. This is going to happen with directed energy weapons in the future as that technology continues to proliferate and not necessarily just to state actors.”