WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army successfully demonstrated a laser weapon integrated onto a Stryker combat vehicle in Europe over the weekend, but the service acknowledges range limitations there are holding back exercising its full capability and training.
Col. Dennis Wille, the Army G-3 strategic program chief for U.S. Army Europe, told an audience March 21 at the Booz Allen Hamilton Directed Energy Summit in Washington, that over the weekend the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment supported by the 7th Army Training Command and the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, conducted a live-fire engagement of the 5-kilowatt Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser (MEHEL) demonstrator at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany.
“The 2nd Cavalry troops successfully engaged a dozen commercial-off-the-shelf drones during this live event and all members of the team, from operators to acquisition, learned many valuable insights into how to conduct this training,” Wille said.
But while the demonstration was successful, in order to ensure proper range safety, all engagements had to be below-the-horizon, “which limits the realism embedded in the training,” Wille said.
“Above-the-horizon would have impacted aviation corridors for a few hundred kilometers around Grafenwoehr,” he added.
And due to the risk to eye safety, Wille said, the scenario was limited. “We recognize the need for a viable scenario where we can combine a live-fire engagement with other maneuver forces in the field,” he said.
The 2nd Cavalry and the 7th Army Training Command’s initial recommendations following the demonstration is to focus on developing high-fidelity simulation devices and software that allow for combined maneuver training while maintaining eye safe practices, according to Wille.
“Developing better simulation techniques will apply to all electronic warfare technologies and not just directed energy,” he noted.
And while the demonstration is still fresh, Wille said he anticipated there would be a quick push among NATO and other partner nations to work with the United States to develop better training range complexes in Europe that can accommodate directed energy weapon systems.
“This is extremely new and so I know that there will be many efforts to try and find locations where above-the-horizon becomes a standard place to do that,” Wille said. “Today there are not very many places on the planet where we can put this in a field environment where it is a standard capability instead of a new experimental capability so we have a lot to learn on that.”
It was just under two years ago that U.S. Army Europe identified gaps in electronic warfare capability in Europe and acknowledged the need to rapidly advance directed energy capability.
Not even a year after sending operational needs statements back to the Pentagon, the acquisition community began to deliver a small number of capabilities into the hands of assigned Brigade Combat Teams which immediately implemented them in field environments, according to Wille.
U.S. Army Europe has since learned many lessons on how to operate electronic warfare capabilities, to include directed energy, in Europe — primarily involving getting permission from host nations and figuring out how to operate in an electromagnetic spectrum used not just for military applications but for ordinary, every day civilian purposes, Wille said.
The MEHEL system will participate in the Joint Warfighting Assessment later this spring in Europe. It was first put to the test at Fort Sill where it knocked down 12 drone targets during the Manuever Fires Integrated Experiment in the spring of 2017.
Lasers on Stryker have a promising future. The Army is eyeing directed energy for a Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense capability for Stryker and is determining whether it can field a laser weapon on a SHORAD system within five years.
Also in Europe is a counter-unmanned aircraft system capability — the C-UAS Mobile Integrated Capability or CMIC — that is a companion system to MEHEL, which defeats small, slow UAS through radio frequency directed energy rather than through lasers, according to Wille. It is also installed on a Stryker vehicle.
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.