Lasers, a technology that has been the focus of sci-fi gadgetry for years, should soon be making its way into the hands of troops in the field, at least according to Vice Chief of the Army General Joseph Martin.
The Army is looking towards powerful laser weapons to give troops improved protection against incoming explosives and other airborne threats, in particular drones. The need for this technology was demonstrated firsthand to Martin, who witnessed Islamic State members equip commercial drones with explosives and munitions for use against the Iraqi troops he was training.
These ad hoc tools were used with terrifying lethality and were difficult to counter. “ISIS took off-the-shelf [unmanned aerial systems], weaponized them, and used them very effectively against the Iraqis,” Martin said. “And so we had to come up with some solutions. And we did.”
Another major motivator is the rapid pace of development of military technologies in nations like Russia and China, which may outpace the U.S. if they don’t continue to keep up in this technology race.
The solution was lasers, which, when employed properly, are incredibly effective at stopping fast-moving airborne threats. When stopping an incoming projectile, a laser weapon operates like a long-range blowtorch, quickly heating the target up until it is destroyed. One of the reasons they are so effective is because of speed. Laser weapons travel at the speed of light, enabling them to engage and reach a target much, much quicker than any form of conventional weapons.
A typical defensive weapon like a missile must be targeted, launched, reach the target, and then detonate — hopefully destroying the incoming threat. A laser will reach the target instantaneously, and the operator can quickly know if they are hitting the target too.
However, lasers need a large power supply, which currently limits the more powerful systems to be mounted on large vehicles at a minimum. In this case, a laser system offers many logistical advantages, too.
“Think about a missile: I have got to make the missile, I have to maintain it, I have got to carry it to the battlefield. I have got to store it, and if I don’t use it, I have got to decommission it,” Says Craig Robin, the head of the Army’s laser project. “That laser system — we need gasoline and we need spare parts for our system, right? That’s the entire logistics burden.”
Robin also explains that for an engagement with an incoming threat with a 50-kilowatt laser, it will simply use a few cups of fuel, while a more conventional weapon like a Stinger missile can cost $38,000 each.
Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) have been tasked by the Army to implement laser technology into a usable weapons system. They developed the DE M-SHORAD.
The DE M-SHORAD Laser System
The DE M-SHORAD is the RCCTO’s creation for a usable laser weapons system, ready to be tested by the Army. The base vehicle is a Stryker A1, an eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle. As the DE M-SHORAD, it is equipped with a 50-kilowatt laser, and it is hoped the system can reach troops in the field by next year.
In a training situation, a DE M-SHORAD located and tracked a drone 8 kilometers away. After locking onto and tracking the drone as it moved closer, the system detected a sudden incoming mortar round. Immediately prioritising it, the DE M-SHORAD sent a laser beam at the round, destroying it. A few seconds later, the laser returns to the drone, destroying that too.
“We’ve got a target acquisition system that can sense and lock on and then strike a moving mortar round … an unmanned aerial system and other aircraft with energy sufficient to the point that it will penetrate and disrupt that particular munition or platform’s ability to accomplish its mission. That’s an incredible power to have.” Gen. Joseph Martin said.
Though the vehicle looks very promising, it still has plenty of testing to go through yet.
He adds “It’s very promising. It’s very powerful. There (are) many things we’ve got to do in terms of testing, and it’s about to go through a shootout to see how it does. But I can’t wait … to see what they can do with it.”