The U.S. Army has big plans for protective and defensive lasers. Taking out drones, incoming missiles, and airplanes, to name just a few uses, are becoming de rigueur for the armed forces. Now the Army has awarded a contract to two large defense contractors who are teaming up with a hugely-powerful new directed energy weapon.
The Great Laser Comeback?
Known for the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s, and derisively called “Star Wars” by opponents, laser weapons are back in vogue and coming to a defense contractor near you. Boeing and General Atomics will team up for the latest in laser power in a contract that aims to demonstrate the design by August of 2022 and eventually deliver the most powerful laser system in the U.S. arsenal.
Powerful Laser to Protect Against Enemy Aircraft and Munitions
Dubbed the “Distributed Gain High Energy Laser Weapon System,” this will be a robust 300-kilowatt solid-state, electromagnetic laser. Likely mounted on a truck, the laser should become the best in its class. The laser will be comprised of two Gen-7 laser heads in a small and efficient package. The design will operate quickly enough to destroy an incoming cruise missile by frying the munition before it reaches its target.
More Lasers on Different American Platforms
That’s not all when it comes to new laser systems.
In terms of defense from enemy unmanned aerial systems, the U.S. Air Force has leaped ahead too. In the second quarter of 2020, the Air Force announced it had a directed energy weapon that could take out enemy drones. Dubbed THOR (Tactical High-Power Operational Responder) by the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, scientists claim the Raytheon system is able to eliminate swarms of attacking drones.
Research on THOR started in 2018 when the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force called for a directed energy response to adversarial remotely piloted vehicles.
Testing continued in the following years at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. By 2022, the Air Force and Raytheon should have a sound road map to eliminate enemy drones by laser.
Stryker Armored Personnel Carrier to Get Lasers
The U.S. Army also wants to deploy lasers to take out enemy drones, rockets, and mortars. The service plans to outfit its Stryker armored personnel carrier with a 50-kilowatt directed energy weapon also by 2022.
The Army believes the laser can definitely be mounted on a vehicle. The challenge, according to the Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies office, is to maximize the energy throughput of the lasers. This will be a critical testing and research path over the coming years.
The Future of Directed Energy
Plans for military lasers are here to stay and it will be interesting to see if they live up to their billing. They can totally change the way the U.S. military looks at missile defense. They can be layered with surface-to-air missiles building up a large shield. Lasers are spreading to other militaries as well. The Israelis have plans to use directed energy beams with their vaunted Iron Dome system. The military is vague about the costs and there have been laser programs that have failed over the years. But a laser has been deployed on the USS Ponce since 2014. So perhaps the Army and Air Force can build on that success and proliferate directed energy systems across the Department of Defense.
1945’s new Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.