WASHINGTON — The Army's future air-and-missile defense capabilities are taking shape under the newest Space and Missile Defense commander, Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, particularly in laser-armed combat vehicles and the Integrated Air-and-Missile Defense system (IAMD), both considered to be crucial enablers for the maneuver force.
How the Army will employ laser weapons in combat and what the IAMD system will look like are at a crossroads, with decisions on paths forward expected in the upcoming years. The SMDC is leading the Army's high-energy laser science and technology efforts that would provide the service with a low-cost, but effective complement to kinetic energy solutions to take out air threats.
The Army has long said it needs to develop interceptors that don't cost $1 million a shot to take out unsophisticated low-cost targets like small, unmanned aircraft systems.
"Now we’ve got something, quite frankly, that we used to see on TV and in cartoons, and it’s a reality with these high-energy lasers," Dickinson told Defense News in a recent interview.
The command has, very rapidly, affixed a 5-kilowatt laser on a Stryker combat vehicle, which has been successful in recent demonstrations, he said.
The Mobile Expeditionary High-Energy Laser (MEHEL) participated in the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) 2016 with a 2-kilowatt laser and a 10-centimeter beam director strapped onto a Stryker. In a four-month period before MFIX 2017, a radar, an electronic warfare capability and fire support were also installed on the same Stryker and the laser was upgraded to 5 kw.
Earlier this spring, MEHEL went out to White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and its full capability was put to the test. "I think we did fairly well out there and the results that we got out of it were very promising," Dickinson said.
Following the hard-kill challenge at White Sands, MEHEL returned to MFIX at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in the first half of April, where soldiers operated the system successfully, Dickinson added.
"Any time you develop a weapon system, you’ve got the materiel, the research and development piece, but in my mind what’s equally important is putting it in the hands of soldiers and having them demonstrate it," Dickinson said. "That is very powerful."
Getting a laser to work as an air defense weapon on a Stryker is a significant advancement from the Army’s previous endeavors to test lasers on huge truck like a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT).
The Army is also pushing to get a 100 kw laser on a Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) truck to move away from the very heavy and bulky HEMTT, which would be for the brigade and above.
Dickinson’s focus is to develop the capability for the brigade combat team.
"We want to provide a maximum defensive capability to the maneuver force, that is the core competency of an air and missile defender like me," he said. "So how do you take that and make sure it’s the most powerful it can be with the greatest capabilities... and can it fit on a common platform that the Army has. It doesn’t do us a lot of good, quite frankly, that big mobile test truck that we’ve got. It’s kind of cumbersome, not highly mobile. You can’t pull that off into the desert environment and hope that it won’t sink into the sand."
Meanwhile, the Army is on the cusp of deciding how it will achieve a 360-degree threat detection capability for its future IAMD system.
The service has long wrestled with when and how it will replace its current AMD system -- Raytheon’s Patriot -- first fielded in 1982. A request for information that was released in July 2016 indicated the Army had yet to decide whether it would procure a new radar or upgrade the current Patriot radar.
The Army’s deputy program executive officer for Army Missiles and Space, Col. Rob Rasch, told Defense News in February that the decision was just around the corner, due out possibly in the summer time frame.
"The Army is still assessing the path forward," conducting analysis and defining requirements, Dickinson said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.