Fighting With Light

Feb. 1, 2010

Directed energy systems—in particular, the laser—could soon dramatically strengthen American armed force capabilities in a wide variety of tactical scenarios. Already, lasers are being used for targeting, range-finding, communications, and the like, but developers are moving swiftly toward applications with destructive power.

The armed forces may actually be on the cusp of a laser revolution. These weapons show promise for missions as diverse as direct attack, air defense, base defense, and countering improvised explosive devices.

An unmanned aerial vehicle is tracked and hit by the high-energy laser from Boeing’s Matrix system in a test last summer. (Air Force Research Laboratory photo)

Advocates believe they are just scratching the surface of the true capabilities of lasers. For its part, Air Force Research Laboratory envisions lasers integrated onto a variety of tactical platforms after the technologies mature.

Most of the attention with tactical lasers focuses on the solid-state variety, which offers shooters a nearly unlimited magazine, officials from the AFRL’s directed energy group at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico said.

In fact, according to Dan Wildt, vice president of directed energy systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, Calif., solid-state lasers could allow Air Force pilots to strike far more targets in a single flight than they can today with limited bombs and rockets.

Laser advocates also prize the weapons’ speed and precision compared to kinetic munitions. Literally moving at the speed of light, lasers can strike a target nearly instantaneously after an order is given, though the beam may need to be held on the target for several seconds to achieve the desired effect.

Aircraft are another possible laser target, though somewhat more difficult to hit. Boeing last year used a system called the Mobile Active Targeting Resource for Integrated Experiments, or Matrix—a mobile, trailer-mounted test bed—to destroy five UAVs in testing at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, Calif. Boeing also used a laser-equipped Avenger ground vehicle to shoot down a UAV during those tests.

Laser precision may be particularly useful against the tiny, inexpensive UAVs that can be employed as sensors or weapons by adversaries who lack significant airpower, said Lee Gutheinz, Boeing’s program director for high-energy laser/electro-optical systems in Albuquerque. The small UAVs present a heat signature difficult to follow with the infrared sensors on anti-aircraft missiles.

After development costs are paid, the cost per laser shot is “relatively small,” according to AFRL. The cost advantages would be enormous, and would invert the current situation requiring expensive anti-aircraft missiles to target cheap drones. UAVs may cost a small fraction of the $50,000 or greater cost of an anti-aircraft missile, Gutheinz said, but operational laser weapons could shift the air defense cost advantage back to the United States.

A Vigilant Eagle ground-based laser protection system. (Raytheon photos)

The technology is so new that development of a battlefield-ready laser system might cost more than that of a new kinetic gun. But because the “ammunition” is so inexpensive, the life cycle cost of operating the directed energy system would likely be far less than a traditional weapon, Gutheinz contended.

Boeing reported that it spent nine months and under $1 million to put the Laser Avenger test bed together for a counter-IED demonstration, and about $1.5 million to upgrade it to shoot at UAVs. If the military asked Boeing for an operational version of the system, it could be ready within 18 months, and perhaps in as few as 12 months, Gutheinz said.

Other strike missions that could take advantage of a laser’s surgical precision include stopping—but not destroying—ground vehicles with minimal collateral damage. Boeing has been exploring this capability with the Advanced Tactical Laser.

During testing in August and September at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., with a C-130H aircraft carrying a high-power chemical laser, Boeing struck an engine component under the hood of a stationary vehicle, and hit the fender of a moving vehicle.

Ready for Prime Time

A laser may not strike with the killing power of a .50 caliber shell to the hood of a vehicle, but it could disable a vehicle long enough for troops to determine whether its occupants are terrorists. It could do this without killing them, Gutheinz said.

If passengers exit a laser-disabled vehicle and show definite signs of being enemy combatants—such as by carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers—the military could follow up the laser with a kinetic strike to kill the insurgents.

If, on the other hand, it turns out that the passengers are not threats, the only downside is “having to write a check to replace the engine,” he said.

Industry officials feel tactical lasers are ready to move out of the research and development realm and onto the battlefield. “They’re ready for prime time,” Gutheinz said. The US military and its allies, for example, use the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement Systems XXI to replicate weapon fire during training and combat experiments.

A timelapse photograph of Vigilant Eagle as it diverts a threat from its target during field testing. (Raytheon photos)

MILES XXI is considered a safe means of allowing both dismounted troops and those in ground vehicles to realistically shoot at each other during force-on-force battles. Lockheed Martin, the MILES XXI developer, would like to migrate this capability to aircraft as well, Scott Conover, director of ground and maritime business development at Lockheed Martin Simulation, Training, and Support in Orlando, Fla., said in December.

However, some national security experts believe that no matter how promising lasers appear, they will have difficulty finding room in a tightened Pentagon procurement budget.

“The services have never been super committed, and they’re willing to let it sit and wallow in research and development—that’s the reality of it,” said James J. Carafano, a defense and homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Industry may have yet to develop the perfect system, but the Pentagon should consider beginning to deploy prototypes to develop laser tactics, techniques, and procedures, he said.

Lasers could play a significant role, for example, in the vexing base-defense mission by knocking down incoming mortar fire. Raytheon is working to upgrade its Phalanx system (used today aboard Navy ships and in a land-based configuration to protect forces in Iraq’s Green Zone) to equip it with lasers, according to Michael W. Booen, Raytheon vice president for advanced missile defense and directed energy systems in Tucson, Ariz.

Using lasers to counter enemy mortar fire could dramatically extend the range of the defensive systems, thus requiring fewer of them, said Booen, a retired Air Force colonel who once oversaw the Airborne Laser program.

By using solid-state lasers, US forces can take advantage of generators already in place on the ground or aboard a ship, thus reducing the logistics burden—and cost—associated with kinetic defensive weapons, Booen said in December.

Raytheon used a solid-state laser to shoot down 60 mm mortar fire at White Sands Missile Range during testing in 2006. This capability remains in the research and development stage.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, are working on competing versions of a system called the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator to defend troops from rockets, mortar fire, and artillery shells.

Boeing’s Laser Avenger system integrates a directed energy weapon with an Avenger air defense system. Laser Avenger can detonate unexploded ordnance or an improvised explosive device while troops stay inside the vehicle. (Boeing photos)

Almost Unlimited Potential

For starters, lasers could be mounted on tactical aircraft and special operations helicopters to protect them from heat-seeking missiles. The laser’s speed-of-light capability could provide an enormous advantage in reacting to incoming surface-to-air missiles.

Similarly, eliminating the “time of flight” it takes for a bomb to fall or missile to reach its target can be key when it comes to reducing unintended civilian casualties or striking moveable targets. Lasers have “almost unlimited potential” to reduce collateral damage, though avoiding international criticism for US military operations is likely a lost cause, added Carafano.

“Had laser systems been available for these applications, the amount of casualties would have been greatly reduced” in strikes against targets in Afghanistan, an AFRL official said. In some instances, lasers can be a valuable military asset without killing anyone. In cases such as the NATO air strike on Radio Television Serbia in Belgrade during Operational Allied Force in 1999 that unintentionally killed 16 civilians, laser weapons could have allowed NATO to negate the station by surgically destroying its antennas and transmitter equipment without harming civilians, an Air Force official said.

The Air Force has seen ample evidence on video where a kinetic weapon has been headed toward an enemy target when additional individuals, sometimes civilians, have walked into the area at the last moment. This has sometimes resulted in unintended injuries and deaths.

Small boats—such as those used by terrorists in the attack on the Navy destroyer USS Cole—Somali pirates, and smugglers are other possible targets for lasers, said Carafano. Lasers could help with the difficult task of stopping a boat without harming hostages or human cargo on board, he wrote in 2008.

Northrop Grumman this year plans a Maritime Laser Demonstration to defeat small boat threats with a solid-state laser fired from a ship, Wildt said.

Hitting communications antennas could also be attractive when facing heavily armored targets such as tanks. Gutheinz said taking away a tank’s ability to communicate prevents it from sharing intelligence, calling in reinforcements, and coordinating its firing with its fellow forces.

Improvised explosive devices and other unexploded ordnance represent other targets that may be ideal for lasers. In a demonstration, Boeing destroyed 50 IEDs with a laser system mounted on an Avenger. The test last fall was sponsored by the Pentagon’s Joint IED Defeat Organization at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

Troops equipped with the Laser Avenger system would not have to get out of their armored vehicles or wait for an explosive ordnance disposal team to destroy an IED in order to continue their mission, according to Boeing.

Destroying IEDs may actually be the simplest application for the tactical lasers, said Gutheinz, a retired Air Force colonel who previously worked on laser programs with USAF and Aerospace Corp. Lasers can touch a small object from hundreds of meters away and blow it up with an explosion of only 30 percent of the IED’s intended power. That sort of fizzled explosion is particularly desirable in urban areas or where collateral damage is a danger, he said.

Boeing’s Laser Avenger system integrates a directed energy weapon with an Avenger air defense system. Laser Avenger can detonate unexploded ordnance or an improvised explosive device while troops stay inside the vehicle. (Boeing photos)

For the military to take full advantage of lasers, it may need to evolve its current targeting mindset, said Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank.

China is developing missiles that could strike US bases and carriers, and lasers could be used to knock those missiles down early in flight. However, a better solution might be to use the lasers to blind the sensors that would guide the missiles, thus eliminating the need to intercept them, he said. Lasers could even be used to blind sensors with such surgical precision—and no explosion or obvious flight path—that it may be unclear to an adversary whether an equipment failure or attack had occurred.

Bring On Ground Capability

For all their potential, lasers are not a panacea and they face their own distinct disadvantages. In addition to difficulty penetrating concrete walls and heavily armored vehicles, lasers are hindered by atmospheric distortion and the need for clear sight lines.

Boeing has worked to address the latter two issues through the Aerospace Relay Mirror System, which ultimately could be carried aboard airships, other long-endurance aircraft, and satellites. The company in 2006 demonstrated a small-scale version of the mirror, held 100 feet off the ground by a crane, to relay a nonlethal beam to targets approximately two miles away.

AFRL is developing other directed energy applications beyond lasers. High power microwave energy beams that also travel at the speed of light and result in little collateral damage are one area of interest. The microwave energy beams are intended to disrupt electronic systems.

Raytheon is exploring this concept, to guard civilian aircraft, through the Vigilant Eagle program. Vigilant Eagle is a ground-based system to protect against terrorist threats such as shoulder-fired missiles. It would defend the aircraft during takeoff and landing, when they are most vulnerable.

Vigilant Eagle uses infrared cameras to spot missiles and fires an electromagnetic beam that interferes with the rocket’s guidance system in order to deflect it away from the aircraft.

A C-130 carrying the Advanced Tactical Laser prepares for a test near Albuquerque, N.M. (USAF photo)

This type of ground-based capability could protect about 80 percent of air traffic within 20 years for less than $3 billion, according to a Raytheon fact sheet. Installing similar systems aboard aircraft would likely be far more expensive, due to logistics and modification expenses. Raytheon estimates onboard systems could cost more than $30 billion for the same level of protection over a 20-year period.

Raytheon is in discussions with both the US Department of Homeland Security and foreign customers about Vigilant Eagle, but has yet to receive any commitments, Booen said.

The technology is promising, but budgets are tight and directed energy systems may need a push for successful systems to make it into the field. Carafano notes that UAVs were not in high demand either until the Pentagon “almost forced them” into the hands of users. Without a concerted push, the Pentagon risks ceding the advantages that come with lasers to a potential adversary, Carafano said.

Jeremy Singer is a Boston-based freelance writer. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Downshifting in Space,” appeared in the April 2009 issue.