WASHINGTON — The director of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) Technical Center outlined the organization’s broad technological priorities during an Oct. 10 appearance at the 2018 Association of the U.S. Army Conference in Washington, D.C.

Thomas Webber listed three high-priority areas where the Technical Center is currently focusing its efforts: high-energy lasers, small satellites and advanced hypersonic weapons.

Webber also stressed from the outset of his presentation the command’s commitment to innovation serves to deliver new capabilities with one goal in mind.

“At the end of the day, everything that we are doing is about enabling the war fighter to have the tools that they need," Webber said. “If we’re not getting capability to the hands of the war fighter, we’re just doing cool science stuff.”

High-energy lasers

Webber spoke with excitement about the Technical Center’s ongoing experimentation with high-energy laser technology, a research field led by SMDC for the Army.

“I’m here to tell you we are within five years,” Webber said.

According to Webber, the Technical Center is currently testing a 60-kilowatt electric laser integrated with a beam control system on a large tactical vehicle.

Webber said these experiments are providing valuable information to SMDC researchers as they move closer to their goal of a installing a fully capable 100 kilowatt laser — generally considered military strength — able to execute “a directed energy, non-kinetic kill” onto a smaller tactical truck.

At the same time, the Technical Center has been experimenting with maneuvering and firing exercises using a smaller, 10 kilowatt laser integrated onto a striker vehicle in an effort to develop tactics, techniques and practices for a future with high-powered laser technology on the battlefield.

Small satellites

Recognizing the importance of strategy as well as force, the Army sees low-cost small satellites as a potential game changer in the age-old challenge of speeding up the information delivery process on the battlefield.

“Right now it may be days, weeks, or never before soldiers get information,” Webber said. “We’re trying to figure out a way in which we can use [low-Earth orbit] space ... to basically provide much more global situational awareness coverage.”

Kestrel Eye, a science and technology demonstration, provided the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command vital data and crucial lessons learned for supporting future Army small satellite programs. (NASA photo)
Kestrel Eye, a science and technology demonstration, provided the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command vital data and crucial lessons learned for supporting future Army small satellite programs. (NASA photo)

Webber described small satellite technology as possessing several advantages, including low-cost acquisition, resilience and frequent technology refresh.

“When you’re doing these things fairly affordably ... and they last three years or so, well now you’re taking advantage of that technology refresh,” Webber said. “Computational speeds improve, more and more capable systems are developed, and you leverage that.”

Yet another benefit of small satellites is enhanced responsiveness, according to Webber.

“The commercial industry is helping to get to more of a cookie cutter, assembly line process for launching rockets,” Webber said. “This starts to give you the flexibility to put them where you need them, and when, to deliver that capability."

Hypersonic weapons

Touching on one final innovation, Webber said the Technical Center is working on mastering guidance, navigation and missile control for hypersonic missiles.

“Hypersonics is an absolute hot topic right now,” Webber said of the prospective missiles that would travel at least 5 times the speed of sound.

“It’s got to be able to be maneuverable and it’s got to be able to maintain its orientation,” Webber said. “Those are the key areas to enable us to develop this capability and get it into the hands of the war fighter.”