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Smaller, Deadlier: Directed Energy Weapons Progress

Directed Energy Weapons Progress

For nearly two decades, precision guided munitions have become an increasingly important staple in the U.S. military inventory. First demonstrated in combat during the first Gulf war, the increased numbers and capabilities demonstrated a decade later in Iraq and Afghanistan became so accepted that any collateral damage – especially civilian casualties – has now become unacceptable to the public.

As the second decade of the 21st century dawns, however, the nature of PGMs is about to change. While missiles, bombs, mortar shells and even guided bullets will remain the heart of the arsenal, a new technology is emerging with the potential to dramatically change the face of combat.

Directed energy weapons are perhaps the ultimate in precision strike. While experiments to date have involved the use of chemical lasers – which tend to be large, expensive and dependent on dangerous chemicals that need periodic replenishment – the future is likely to rest with solid state lasers and significantly advanced liquid lasers.

Two major directed energy weapons programs currently underway are the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL), funded by the Joint Technology Office and the Army to produce a lab-based 100KW technology demonstrator; and the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), a DARPA-funded program to demonstrate an actual 150KW laser weapons system. JHPSSL is about midway through a three-year program, while HELLADS is approaching demonstration of a 50KW unit cell demonstration. That is expected to be followed by a two-year phase to build and demonstrate a full 150KW capability, then transitioning the technology to the Air Force to test on an airborne platform.

“DARPA’s goal [with HELLADS] was to take the present state-of-the-art and try to make an order of magnitude leap in terms of weight and volume. If you can build and demonstrate a laser of this power to those specifications, it then would be compatible with the kinds of platforms on which you would want to deploy the laser, such as an F-35. That has really been one of the main obstacles previously – they were simply too large and too heavy,” Dr. John Boness, vice president-Directed Energy Weapons at Textron Defense Systems (Wilmington, MA), tells The Year in Defense.

“The publicly released numbers call for building a system at 5kg per kilowatt – or 750kg – and you’re pushing the limits of technology in almost every area to meet those requirements. You have to miniaturize systems by an order of magnitude, the supports and optical systems require lightweight materials, there are considerations involving pulse power and thermal management. It was viewed as a DARPA-hard engineering challenge when we began, but I think we’re doing very well.”

As happened with UAVs, which rose and fell in miliary interest for decades before coming into their own thanks to technological advances in the 1990s, lasers have been studied for at least three decades. Until now, however, they were not powerful enough at a size, weight and logistics requirement to be practical. HELLADS and JHPSSL are strong indicators that this is about to change.

“We would certainly like to see 100KW prototypes in the field within five years – and I think we are on a development pathway now to put demonstrator/prototype systems, especially for the Army and Air Force, into that timeframe. To really put them into the field, in combat, would be the next step, perhaps out in the 7 to 10 year range,” Boness says. “In smaller power ranges, if you can convince the military they have a battlefield utility, they could be available more quickly.”

While all the services are pursuing directed energy, it is not seen as a replacement for the next generations of PGMs, he adds, but as a complementary capability, providing combatant commanders with greater flexibility to address whatever circumstance they may encounter. And to achieve true precision, even directed energy weapons will rely on many of the guidance and targeting technologies being developed for current and future PGMs.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-49">
    Troy Harskjold

    Interesting article, but this article is a bit behind. We currently have a HMMWV mounted energy weapon, testing has been done on airborne laser systems. The technology is there, its the miniaturization that has to be worked on.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-50">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    You’re thinking of the Avenger anti-IED/Mine laser system. Yes, the technology has been around for awhile, but the problem has been miniaturization as well as a consistent power source. Airborne Laser isn’t mounted on a 747/E-4 airframe for crew comfort, it’s to allow room for the plumbing and power source. Developing a useful weapon that is light enough and can have a useful rate of fire is the challenge. And remember the Avenger laser is on the order of 1 kilowatt. The article covers programs developing lasers that generate 50-150 kilowatts and could make for viable weapon systems if they can get the power up and the weight down.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-51">
    Troy Harskjold

    No actually I was referring to the the small version of the Zues that is located in Alaska. Tis one has been used to destroy IED’s using laser energy at distances of 200M with heat. This also causesd the detonation to to less lethal since it catches fire internally moreso than being detonated with a heat/pressure type fuze.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-52">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    That’s a new one on me, Troy. The last time we covered the program in detail was when we were doing a book with DARPA. At that time, Zeus was at about 1 kw and had been deployed to Afghanistan. Afterwards, I understand it was boosted to 2 kw and deployed to Iraq, but since then as far as I knew it was in limbo. I also heard they shaved a lot of weight off of the system.

    Alaska, huh? I’ll look into that. And thanks for your comment.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-53">
    Troy Harskjold

    Just a little more FYI on this subject. The land based Laser si about 3-5 meters across and I read the article about in either “Soldier” or “Army” magazine. The picture of the laser was on the cover. It spoke about successful tests and the article also mentioned the vehicle mounted version that you referenced above. 2002 – 2005 editions I believe.