Laser Weapons “Will be Tactically Deployed in the Next 5-10 Years”
The Space and Missile Defence Symposium (SMD 2019) finds Lockheed Martin dramatically expanding its directed energy laser portfolio, MON US correspondent Marty Kauchak reports from Huntsville.
This spring a Dynetics-led team, including Lockheed Martin, was awarded a contract to build and test US Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator Program, a 100kW laser weapon system. Lockheed Martin will be the laser weapon system integrator, providing the laser weapon subsystem and optimising the performance of the laser module, power and cooling systems and operator interfaces. This contract is a follow-up to another recent Lockheed Martin accomplishment in this sector – its delivery in spring 2017 of a 60kW-class laser to the US Army.
“Lockheed Martin developed a spectral beam combined fibre laser architecture for the US Army under the referenced RELI [Department of Defense’s Robust Electric Laser Initiative] contract and scales to 100kW and above, by two mechanisms: adding more fibre lasers; or increasing the power of the fibre laser,” commented the company’s Program Director, Laser & Sensor Systems and Bothell Site Manager, Tyler Griffin, in response to a question as to how the company is using scalability to advance its products for this space – from the earlier 60kW-class weapon to this new 100kW weapon.
As MON readers will be aware, Lockheed Martin has a heritage of cross-pollinating its directed energy laser weapon capabilities in the naval domain into the land warfare domain, and vice versa.
In one instance, Lockheed Martin has over a decade of experience developing advanced optical systems and beam control. “We are working on a Digital Holographic Illuminator that will allow navy platforms to see targets and track UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] in the presence of fog. This intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset is a powerful solution for next-generation naval laser weapon systems and can easily provide advantages for ground-based systems as well,” Mr Griffin continued.
Elsewhere, the company’s Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) laser system is reported to be more electrically efficient than other laser systems with equivalent power – and it’s precise. “Our 30kW single-mode fibre laser delivers electrical efficiency, and our proven beam-control architecture delivers target and track capability of small targets in clutter backgrounds and the precision pointing and firing needed for tactical missions. Military applications require both. ATHENA is a powerful test asset and highly capable against UAVs and weaponised drones, rockets, artillery and mortar fire. Future missions could use this system to defend ships, forward operating bases and using ATHENA in a deployed system would provide similar capabilities to use against large ground vehicles, aircraft, mortars and missiles,” Griffin added.
He summarised the case for investing in directed energy, noting the capability “is a high-payoff technology because of the speed, flexibility, precision and low cost per engagement that is only possible with lasers.” This applies to stand-alone systems and directed energy systems that operate in conjunction with kinetic energy systems. Additionally, “as a complementary force multiplier, laser weapon systems can enable warfighters to counter a growing range of new threats. A laser weapon provides a ‘deep magazine,’ with a favorable cost exchange ratio and speed-of-light delivery; a kinetic weapon provides capabilities against harder and larger targets. Laser weapon systems can fill gaps in defence coverage, especially against threats that are too close for the trajectory of a kinetic system.”
Back in the naval domain, in January 2018, US Naval Sea Systems Command awarded Lockheed Martin’s Aculight Corporation a contract for work on the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System, previously known as the SEASABER. The contract will see Lockheed Martin develop, manufacture and deliver two High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with surveillance (HELIOS) systems by fiscal year 2020. One system will be installed aboard a Flight IIA (DDG 51) ARLEIGH BURKE-class destroyer, the other at a land-based testing site.
Mr Griffin also provided expert insight on the art of the possible in this sector, by initially noting Lockheed Martin has specialised in laser weapon system development for 40 years and developed key directed energy technologies across the corporation. “We bring together the system-to-system integration expertise, coupled with our platform integration knowledge and warfighter training competencies. Practical and cost-effective directed energy systems could be integrated on existing land, sea and air platforms beginning in the 2020-25 timeframe, following concerted technology maturation and demonstration efforts.” Influential factors include the pace of technology maturation for progressively higher levels of energy on-target, as well as rules of engagement that have yet to be developed. “We believe that in the next 5-10 years laser weapon systems will be tactically deployed on ground, sea and air platforms. We also believe that lasers in space [are] not only possible, but a reality that could be realised in a similar timeframe.”