WASHINGTON — Downed drones littered the battlefield at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona during a live-fire test of the Stryker-based Short-Range Air Defense system prototypes with 50-kilowatt lasers, according to the director of Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office.
“When they got out on the range, they were knocking targets out of the sky, Group 1, Group 2, Group 3 [unmanned aircraft systems],” Lt. Gen. Robert Rasch said told Defense News in an interview. “Very, very effective.”
While the lasers made short work of drones, some challenges remain in taking out rockets, artillery and mortars, he said.
The Army is now receiving its first platoon-set of the systems, taking the first two of the Directed Energy Maneuver-SHORAD prototypes to Yuma earlier this year for training with soldiers. The third prototype is about to go into acceptance testing, according to Rasch, and the fourth will be delivered within the next couple of months.
Delivering the first platoon-set — four DE M-SHORAD prototypes — will complete RCCTO’s mission, but the office won’t stop there.
Developmental testing with soldiers will continue over the next quarter and in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023, the Army will begin developing tactics, techniques and procedures for the systems, Rasch said.
“There’s a lot, when you look at fielding a capability, you don’t just field a technology, you have to figure out how to integrate that technology into a warfighting capability,” Rasch said.
The Army fielded its M-SHORAD system with a kinetic capability to Europe in response to an urgent operational need. “We’ve got kinetic M-SHORAD, we’ve got directed energy M-SHORAD, we’re just now getting short-range air defense back into our maneuver units. So they’re still figuring out the TTPs on how to fight that.”
And the Army also has to figure out the right mix of those systems and how it wants to use them in operations, he added.
Then RCCTO, in partnership with Army Test and Evaluation Command, will take the DE M-SHORAD into a user assessment beginning in the fourth quarter of FY23 through the first quarter of FY24.
Already the system has come a long way, Rasch said, compared to the prototypes the Army evaluated just a year ago.
The effort to put a laser on an M-SHORAD vehicle began in 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 Grumman and Raytheon Technologies teams to develop the laser module.
The competition between Northrop and Raytheon to produce the laser module was intended to culminate in a shoot-off between the two teams. Kord and the Army then planned to agree on a winner and proceed with integration of the selected module onto three more Strykers to make a platoon’s worth of directed energy 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.
Northrop took itself out of the running ahead of the shoot-off in early 2021 after problems with the power and thermal management system resulted in a fire and smoke damage to the laser system and other components. Northrop continued to have issues with the system and decided it couldn’t continue after a January 2021 checkout.
Following the shoot-off in 2021, the Army awarded Raytheon a $123 million contract to supply the laser weapon.
While the Army expected to receive the first set of DE M-SHORAD systems last fall, the delivery has come slower than expected.
Defense News first reported that the DE M-SHORAD system would stay in development longer and not transfer to a program of record with Program Executive Office Missiles & Space until FY25. According to FY24 budget justification documents, the Army will begin the transfer process in the first quarter of FY25 and complete it by the fourth quarter.
The budget documents also show an Increment 2 award for the next platoon set of DE M-SHORAD won’t happen until the third quarter of FY23. The plan a year ago was to award a contract in the third quarter of FY22. Prototyping has subsequently been pushed back by a year beginning in FY23.
But despite the schedule slips for Increment 2 prototyping, the Army will still deliver its prototypes for the second platoon by the fourth quarter of FY24, indicated in budget plans a year ago, just ahead of the planned transfer to PEO Missiles & Space.
“We’re still learning a lot about directed energy from 10-kilowatt systems up to 300-kilowatt systems and we’re still trying to collect all of the data on lethality, the capabilities of these systems,” Rasch said. While the development is expensive on the front end, he added, the cost per shot from a laser is exponentially more affordable than a munition.
So the RCCTO is focused on, over the next year, on keeping the industrial base for laser weapons competitive in order to continue to drive affordability into the development process of these systems, Rasch noted.
The Army plans to open up a competition to produce the DE M-SHORAD capability, but that won’t happen until it is under the purview of PEO Missiles & Space, Rasch said.
The service is also working on what’s next for SHORAD including other capabilities that would roll into future systems. Those activities will begin in the first quarter of FY26 through the fourth quarter of FY30.
The Army plans to procure another kinetic interceptor to ultimately replace the Stinger missile currently used in the M-SHORAD.
According to FY24 budget documents, the service will award prototype contracts in the third quarter of FY23 and will design, develop and build prototypes by the third quarter of FY27.
A technology demonstration for the new missile will take place in the third quarter of FY24. Developmental testing will occur from the second quarter of FY26 through the third quarter of FY27, followed by an operational assessment in the third quarter of FY27.
The Army would then enter into low-rate initial production in the fourth quarter of FY27 through the fourth quarter of FY29, the documents show.
The RCCTO is also working on a smaller laser weapon for the Army’s Infantry Squad Vehicle as well. The Army selected SAIC to integrate the 20-kilowatt laser onto the GM Defense manufactured vehicle. Prototyping will take place from the second quarter of FY23 through the fourth quarter of FY24, according to the Army’s budget documents.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.