HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. Army is working through a variety of challenges with directed-energy weapons for air defense, including how to affordably manufacture the high-tech capability and sustain it on the battlefield, according to service officials with knowledge of the effort.
But more importantly, according to the Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office director, the service must figure out how it will fight with the systems.
With other efforts in his portfolio like hypersonic weapons and midrange missiles that are rapidly transferring to programs of record and already being fielded to units, “we knew what those capabilities were and trained the soldiers how to use it. We had a plan doctrinally,” Lt. Gen. Rob Rasch told Defense News in an Aug. 10 interview at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium.
“Directed energy is an area that we didn’t know as much, not just from how to make them but how we’re going to employ them,” he added.
When Rasch took over the Army office a year ago, he determined he needed to keep a prototyping effort to build a directed-energy weapon on a Stryker combat vehicle for short-range air defense in his portfolio longer than planned. It was expected to head to the service’s Program Executive Office Missiles and Space.
Rasch’s organization is waiting to receive the last of four prototypes it is required to deliver as a first platoon set. Two of the prototypes successfully underwent testing with soldiers at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, this year.
“What we don’t yet know from directed-energy systems, necessarily, is how to fight [with] them, how to fight [with] lasers on the battlefield, how to integrate kinetic and non-kinetic effectively, like directed energy and other traditional air defense missiles, into the battlespace,” Rasch told an audience at the SMD Symposium.
The first platoon will begin developing tactics, techniques and procedures as well as training guidance, then conduct an operational assessment before Rasch turns the effort over to the program office in fiscal 2025.
The effort to put a laser on a Stryker vehicle equipped with a Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense system began in mid-2019, when the Army awarded KBR subsidiary Kord Technologies a contract to integrate a laser system onto the vehicle.
As the program’s prime contractor, Kord subsequently awarded subcontracts to Northrop Grumman and RTX teams to develop the laser module.
The competition between Northrop and RTX to produce the laser module was intended to culminate in a shoot-off between the two teams. But Northrop took itself out of the running ahead of the event 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.
RTX completed the shoot-off and was awarded a $123 million contract to supply the laser weapon.
Building a base
The Army is now grappling with how to ensure directed-energy systems can be manufactured affordably. Rasch is now trying to drive competition into various components.
Furthermore, Rasch wondered, “given the thermal aspects of the directed energy, the heat that it puts off, how do we ensure that we get systems that are reliable?”
Rasch has launched a new round of prototyping that is taking another look at what industry could offer, such as laser modules and beam directors.
“We’ll be bringing in some different component vendors primarily to ensure that we have competition when we pass it over to PEO Missiles and Space,” Rasch said. “We want to make sure that we’re not giving them a vendor-locked solution. The competition helps drive affordability. … We’re trying to grow the industrial base across the board … so that competition just isn’t at the top, it’s at multiple levels within that supply chain.”
Reliability in the field
As the Army prepares to field laser weapons after decades of development, Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, who leads the Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, said the biggest challenge in his view is ensuring sustainability in the field. He noted it’s been difficult to keep a few laser weapon systems up and running in U.S. Africa Command’s area of operations.
“We have to do better if we want to scale this across the force,” he said.
“Lasers are complicated,” Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler, the head of Space and Missile Defense Command, said at the symposium. “When you look at what you have to do to build a laser, and many of the main components ... you’re not going to have a supply room or maintenance office full of repair parts.”
The Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office is working on how to design systems that can easily receive maintenance using “line-replaceable units” that can be quickly swapped in and out in the field, rather than needing a “clean room with scientists with gloves to do all that work,” Rasch said.
How the service ultimately fields its directed-energy M-SHORAD system is a “bigger Army decision,” Rasch added, “but working very closely with PEO Missiles and Space on that path, we’ve got it aligned there that allows us to do enough learning on the overall capability of that particular system, both from an operational perspective and a materiel developer perspective to help inform that decision collectively.”
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.