WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment into its markup of the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill that would make the Pentagon report on its investment strategy for developing power and thermal management systems that enable laser weapons.
“The [c]ommittee notes with concern the recent decision by a major defense contractor to exit the Directed Energy Mobile Short-Range Air Defense program following repeated failure of its power and thermal management system,” the amendment, submitted by Rep. James Langevin (D-Rhode Island), states.
Defense News first reported Northrop Grumman was no longer in the running to build a DE Maneuver-SHORAD prototype for the U.S. Army.
While testing the 50-kilowatt laser module on the weapon late last year, a fire broke out related to the power and thermal management system integrated onto the platform. Similar problems cropped up at a checkout of the system in January ahead of shoot-off schedule for the spring at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
Because Northrop was unable to meet criteria agreed upon at contract award at the check-out, it was unable to continue on in the competition, leaving just one team led by Raytheon in the running.
The program began in mid-2019 when the Army awarded KBR subsidiary Kord Technologies a contract to integrate a laser system on the vehicle. Kord, as the program’s prime contractor, subsequently awarded subcontracts to Northrop and Raytheon teams to supply the laser module and it chose Honeywell-owned Rocky Research to supply the power and thermal managements system to both teams.
Raytheon did not experience similar issues with the system, was able to successfully demonstrate the capability in the combat shoot-off, and the Army has decided to proceed in integrating three more modules on Stryker combat vehicles to make a Platoon’s worth.
Integrating laser technology as powerful as 50-kilowatts onto vehicle platforms is very challenging, Army officials and engineers have told Defense News.
The service is looking at laser weapons even more powerful, but on larger, yet still mobile, platforms. One example is an effort to build a 100-kilowatt laser weapon. A Dynetics and Lockheed Martin team beat out Raytheon in a competition for the effort in 2019.
Rolls-Royce is supplying an integrated power and thermal management system geared for powering a 100-kilowatt-class laser weapon for the effort.
Dynetics is working on a 300-kilowatt class laser system on a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck for the Indirect Fires Protection Capability Increment 2 program as well.
The House committee “recognizes the need for expanded investment in power and thermal management systems as the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the military services seek to increase the power of high energy laser systems,” the amendment states.
While the committee supports the endeavors, it “remains concerned about the strength and breadth of the industrial base in key enabling technology areas, including power and thermal management,” it continues.
If the language passes as part of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon would be required to brief the committee by June 1, 2022 “on plans to budget for and invest in the development of power and thermal management subsystems, as well as the integration of those subsystems with OSD and service-led high energy laser activities in the timeframes described in the Directed Energy Roadmap.”
The roadmap includes a plan to gradually scale power levels from around 150-kilowatts to 300-kilowatts by FY22, then to 500-kilowatts by FY24 and to 1-megawatt of power by FY30, according to a July 2021 Congressional Research Service report.
While 100-kilowatt capability would be able to take out drones and small boats, as well as rockets, artillery and mortars, a 300-kilowatt laser could defeat cruise missiles, and a 1-mega watt laser could possibly counter ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons, the report notes.
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.