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U.S. Army Pushing Laser-Based Defenses

May. 13, 2012 - 11:00AM   |  
By PAUL McLEARY   |   Comments
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Will the U.S. Army soon start blasting incoming rockets and mortars with laser beams to protect its forward operating bases? Not quite, but according to people involved in industry and the Army, that day might not be that far off.

Take for example the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), being developed by Boeing and the Army’s Space & Missile Defense Command.

Blaine Beardsley, HEL MD program manager at Boeing, said the company installed a low-energy demonstrator on an Oshkosh HEMTT A4 vehicle and completed integration during the summer of 2011, while passing low-power testing in the fall and winter.

The system was “very successful in acquiring and tracking the object and putting the beam on it,” he said, adding that the next step involves the Army awarding the high-power beam follow-on contract sometime this summer or fall, which would lead to field testing in 2013.

Since the laser is mobile, “you can drive it out to any location and emplace it quickly and be able to set it up with full 360-degree coverage,” Beardsley said. The HEL MD was able to detect and track 60mm and 120mm mortars in testing last winter, and since it relies on electrical power to produce lethal effects, “even while you’re utilizing the magazine and engaging targets, you’re charging that magazine.” In other words, as long as it has electricity, it can fire.

The problem of rocket and mortar attacks on fixed positions has vexed U.S. and NATO forces for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, causing them to deploy a number of defensive systems to try to knock down the threats before they hit.

One successful program has been the Counter-Rocket and Mortar (C-RAM) Land-based Phalanx Weapon System (LPWS), which has thwarted 170 mortar and rocket attacks on forward operating bases in Iraq, while providing warning of more than 2,000 attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005, according to U.S. Navy documents.

The LPWS is a trailer-mounted version of the Navy’s Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, which fires high-explosive self-destruct rounds at 3,000 to 4,500 shots per minute from a 20mm M61A1 Gatling gun. The system also has an autonomous target detection and engagement capability. In February, Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract from the Army that could be worth as much as $132 million to install and sustain several Phalanx-based C-RAM systems at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the system has been successful, some attacks still get through. And this is where advocates say solid-state lasers can do a better job. While kinetic systems have a finite number of bullets, take time to reload, and may have difficulty engaging multiple targets, systems such as the HEL MD or other solid-state technologies “have a near-infinite magazine.”

“As long as they have a source of electricity and cooling, they can keep firing,” said Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He authored a recent report saying the time is ripe for the Pentagon to invest more in laser weapon technology, Gunzinger said, “you don’t have to wait for a kinetic weapon to fly to a target — it goes at the speed of light.”

Beardsley confirmed that the HEL MD can track multiple objects simultaneously, and after hitting the first target can quickly slew to the next one. Due to potential operational sensitivities, he declined to say how quickly the system does this.

Gunzinger did add a caveat to his enthusiasm, however. “Directed energy weapons can’t completely replace kinetic defenses. They’re complementary,” he said. “You need both of them because lasers have limitations in bad weather and so forth.”

While the wait for battlefield lasers continues, another new Army C-RAM program should be fielded within 18 months, followed by low-rate initial production. Earlier this year, Raytheon announced it received a $79.2 million contract for the Accelerated Improve Intercept Initiative (AI3).

Steve Bennett, Raytheon’s AI3 program director, said in an email that AI3 “leverages technologies from the Sidewinder, Avenger and Small Diameter Bomb II programs as well as leveraging program and IR&D efforts from our key suppliers.” No other details are available, but Bennett wrote that the company will “have it fielded and saving soldiers’ lives by 2015.”

Another system for small combat outposts in Afghanistan is on the way this summer, according to Col. Pete Newell, the head of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force. He declined to go into detail due to operational security concerns, but said that even with radar, one of the hardest threats to counter is when an enemy fires rockets and mortars over the tops of mountains: “No radar can find that.”

His organization has come up with a potential solution, designed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and tested it. It’s now headed downrange.

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