NEWS FROM REDSTONE ARSENAL: Army Scaling Up Laser Systems
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Army is boosting the power of its laser systems as it pursues better air defense capabilities.
The service is keen on directed energy weapons, but more work needs to be done to integrate them into the force, according to officials.
“High-energy laser systems are so new that the Army, in general, really doesn't know how to employ them on the battlefield,” Richard Yaw, director of air-and-missile defense and chief of the high-energy laser division at Redstone Arsenal, told reporters March 25 at the facility in Huntsville, Alabama. “We need practice devices — experimental devices — to put in their hands and let them develop those techniques.”
Air-and-missile defense is one of the Army's top six modernization priorities. The service has been working on multiple directed energy initiatives to examine how the technology can be integrated into its toolkit. One such technology is the Mobile Experimental High Energy Laser, or MEHEL, a solid-state system mounted onto a Stryker vehicle. It began as a 2-kilowatt configuration, which was demonstrated in fiscal year 2016. It was upgraded to a 5-kilowatt platform later that year.
The Army increased the system’s power again in 2018, and soldiers operated the 10-kilowatt configuration at the annual Maneuver and Fires Integration Experiment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Troops were able to use the device to defeat small rotary- and fixed-wing unmanned aerial systems, according to the service.
The Army had planned to demonstrate its laser technology for reporters at Redstone Arsenal March 25 but the event was canceled due to weather.
Future plans for the MEHEL are to increase the power to 50 kilowatts for a technology demonstration in 2021, Yaw said. According to budget justification documents, this will help the service decide on a new maneuver short-range air defense program of record. The Army requested $18.7 million to begin developing the 50-kilowatt variant in fiscal year 2020.
The biggest challenge to upgrading the configuration is ensuring that all the necessary hardware is able to fit onto the platform, said Dee Formby, the lead engineer for the initiative.
“The hardware gets larger" as the system's power increases, he noted. “You have to package it in a way that will fit the vehicle [but] the vehicle stays the same size."
Multiple companies produced different parts of the MEHEL, Formby said. Lockheed Martin built the laser and Boeing provided the beam director.
The Army is now “on the cusp” of reaching its goal of developing a 100-kilowatt system, Yaw said. The High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator, which integrates a 100-kilowatt solid-state laser on a family of medium tactical vehicles, is slated for a demo in fiscal year 2022.
Using directed energy for air defense is cheaper than using kinetic interceptors, Yaw said. Once fielded, a high-energy laser is expected to cost about $30 per shot, as compared to missiles or other systems that can cost thousands or millions of dollars to use, he noted.
“This will be very cost effective,” he said.