UPDATE — This story has been updated to include a fielding date for the platoon of DE M-SHORAD systems.
WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman is no longer in the running to build a powerful laser weapon system for the U.S. Army’s Short-Range Air Defense System, sources tell Defense News.
While testing the 50-kilowatt laser module on the SHORAD system late last year, a fire broke out, according to sources with knowledge of the incident but not authorized to speak publicly. The fire was related to the power and thermal management system integrated onto the platform to support the laser module, the sources said.
The laser system and other components suffered smoke and fire damage, and Northrop had to race to make repairs ahead of an end-to-end system checkout required before moving to a competitive shoot-off at Fort Sill, Okla.
But in January, at the checkout, the power and thermal management system again malfunctioned, generating smoke as the company ran tests, according to the sources.
Northrop was unable to meet the criteria agreed upon at contract award at the check-out, Dr. Craig Robin, the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office’s Directed Energy Project Office director, told Defense News in a statement.
RCCTO is the Army office focused on rapidly advancing technologies, such as hypersonic and directed-energy weapons, needed to help the force address near-peer competitors.
Robin said his office told Northrop it was welcome to compete at the shoot-off, but it had to cover its own costs. Northrop said it would not continue.
“We are disappointed not to be participating in the combat shoot-off,” Northrop Grumman said in a June statement to Defense News. “But we look forward to continuing to develop our directed-energy and laser weapon capabilities to help provide more comprehensive protection of frontline combat units.”
However, neither Northrop nor the RCCTO would confirm the details that drove the company to exit the program.
Northrop’s exit left just one other team – led by Raytheon – seeking to integrate a laser on a Maneuver SHORAD system.
The program has been moving forward since mid-2019 when the Army awarded KBR subsidiary Kord Technologies a contract to integrate a laser system onto the vehicle. Kord, as the program’s prime contractor, subsequently awarded subcontracts to Northrop and Raytheon teams to compete to supply the laser module.
The competition was intended to culminate in a shoot-off between the two teams. Kord and the Army would then agree on a winner and proceed with integration of the chosen laser module onto three more Strykers to make a platoon’s worth of directed energy-capable SHORAD systems.
Supplied to both teams was a General Dynamics Land Systems-built Stryker and a power and thermal management system from Rocky Research, a Nevada-based company focused on thermal management technology. Rocky Research was acquired by Honeywell in October 2020.
In a statement, Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, the RCCTO director, praised the process, noting that “[p]rototyping requires rapid development of advanced technologies on an accelerated timeline.”
“One advantage is that design challenges are addressed early, prior to execution under a traditional program of record,” he added. “DE M-SHORAD[’s] initial executed development from contract award to the Combat Shoot-Off in only 24 months, is a great example of successful prototyping.”
Kord told Defense News that, as the prime contractor, it “evaluated its subcontractors against an agreed-upon series of key milestones and technical criteria.”
“Kord took into account all circumstances when selecting the system to advance to the combat shoot-off demonstration this summer,” the company added. “Successful execution of the combat shoot-off does not require multiple teams to participate, and Kord is in full compliance with our contractual requirements.”
Kord declined to discuss the details of why Northrop is no longer participating, but confirmed the Raytheon team met the required milestones to participate in the shoot-off.
Raytheon referred questions to the RCCTO, and Honeywell referred questions to Kord.
The problem that led to Northrop’s departure was not the first challenge for the laser module effort. First, the global pandemic challenged second- and third-tier suppliers’ ability to deliver critical pieces for the systems, according to Army officials not authorized to speak publicly.
Then, the Army and Kord encountered redesign work that set the schedule back about a month, the Army officials said.
In his statement, Thurgood confirmed that, “[a]s development progressed, common design challenges were resolved and shared across the teams.”
“We are unable to release specific design details due to security constraints,” he continued. “[H]owever, we can assure you that both teams, in an open and transparent discussion, received the same criteria, the same timeline and the same additional schedule to accommodate learning during the prototyping integration efforts to accomplish contract criteria.”
A source familiar with the program but not authorized to speak publicly said both teams struggled during the design phase and initial build-out with the very high level of generator power needed to feed the laser system.
The source, with experience integrating laser technology onto vehicle platforms, said lasers as powerful as 50 kilowatts present a significant cooling and thermal challenge because roughly two-thirds of the energy put into the system is wasted and turns into heat to get one-third of the energy out in the form of a laser.
The Army has acknowledged the challenges inherent in this capability.
“The reason we chose a Stryker is it’s the smallest vehicle that goes with a maneuver element,” Thurgood said at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium earlier this month. “That’s wicked hard, right? It’s easy to put on a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck. That’s not interesting. It’s easy to put a 10-kilowatt on a Stryker. That’s not interesting.”
Thurgood said it’s important to put the largest laser on the smallest vehicle in the maneuver element so it can keep up with brigade combat teams.
After Northrop exited, the shoot-off with Raytheon’s equipment was successful, according to the source. The results — which are classified — satisfied the Army to the point it decided to integrate the company’s system onto the rest of a platoon of Strykers.
The source confirmed to Defense News that integration work on those vehicles has already begun.
The four systems will be fielded by the end of calendar year 2022, Col. G. Scott McLeod, the Army’s program manager for DE M-SHORAD, said during an Aug. 18 media briefing.
During the shoot-off, soldiers, not contractors, operated the vehicles and the initial prototype Stryker was able to engage rockets, artillery and mortars as well as a variety of unmanned aircraft systems from those weighing under 20 pounds up to UAS weighing less than 1,200 pounds and “some other targets,” Thurgood said at the symposium. “They were phenomenal.”
The DE M-SHORAD capability will transition from RCCTO to the Army’s Program Executive Office Missiles and Space in 2023, according to Thurgood.
PEO Missiles & Space is expected to hold a competition for full-rate production of the DE M-SHORAD system, according to McLeod.
He also noted the capability is being assessed for possible homeland defense applications. Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration attended the shoot-off, he added.
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.