USA TODAY SPECIAL EDITION
The Navy’s highenergy laser has an integrated optical-dazzler and surveillance capabilities.
defense, according to Lemmo, who predicts continued use of kinetic weapons for large and long-range targets, and a gradual shift to directed energy for small and near-range targets. “Right now we’re looking primarily at defending against small unmanned aerial vehicles,” Lemmo says. “In the Navy’s case, it’s defending against small boats ... that are trying to get close in order to attack a larger vessel. We’re also looking to defend against rockets, artillery and mortars. And eventually, as we’re able to increase power levels, we’ll be looking to potentially intercept cruise missiles and other larger weapon types.” Directed energy is useful against a range of enemies in a range of environments, according to Obering. On one end of the spectrum, for example, is the war on terrorism. If an unidentified vehicle approaches soldiers in the desert, they have no way of knowing whether the driver is a suicide bomber or an innocent civilian fleeing danger; using a high-powered microwave, they can err on the side of caution and disable the vehicle without casualties. The same soldiers can use the same weapon to neutralize a swarm of drones. “Stopping dozens of drones that are loaded with explosives is almost impossible (with guns or missiles) because of their speed and maneuverability,” Obering says.
“With something like a high-power microwave in your toolbox, you can just flip a switch and they’ll all fall from the sky.” On the other end of the warfighting spectrum is a great power competition. Peer adversaries such as China and Russia are increasingly using ambiguous “gray zone” tactics instead of engaging in traditional wartime fighting. An example is the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia used unidentified soldiers known colloquially as “little green men” to seize power by surreptitious means. Conflicts like this one often take place in urban landscapes where there is significant civilian risk, and where a disproportionate show of force could trigger undue aggression. “Weapons that have nonlethal applications can be very effective in those gray zones because they have very precise and very dialed capabilities,” Obering says. “You can use a laser very carefully in environments where a 500-pound bomb would not be appropriate.”
‘Real and ... Ready’ Like most electronics, directedenergy weapons over time will become smaller and more powerful. But DOD isn’t waiting. Under R&E’s direction, the services are developing, testing and deploying directed energy here and now. “Right now we’re in the opera-
tional demonstration phase,” Trebes says. “This is where soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen get to operate real systems in the field ... rather than scientists and engineers. It’s where we find out what works and what doesn’t.” Among the systems currently in DOD’s pipeline are the Army’s indirect fire protection capabilityhigh energy laser, which by 2024 will mount onto tactical vehicles; 300-kilowatt lasers capable of taking out cruise missiles; the Navy’s high-energy laser with integrated optical-dazzler and surveillance system, which next year will be installed on a Navy destroyer; smaller 60-kilowatt lasers that can shoot down drones; and the Navy’s 150-kilowatt solid state laser — technology maturation laser weapon system demonstrator — which already is installed on the amphibious ship USS Portland. Lockheed Martin is furnishing the lasers for the first two systems, while Northrop Grumman supplied the laser for the third. The Air Force also is deep into directed-energy development. In partnership with Raytheon, it recently tested the company’s Phaser high-power microwave and high-energy laser weapon systems, both of which are designed to be mounted on tactical vehicles for counter-drone missions. Less mature, but no less exciting is AFRL’s self-protect high-energy laser demonstrator. Under development with Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and Boeing, it eventually will be mounted to aircraft for inflight defense against missiles. Although few things sound more futuristic than fighting wars with lasers and microwaves, these programs make a resounding case that the future is now. Concludes Lemmo, “I think the biggest message is: The technology is real and it’s ready.”
POWERFUL PARTNERSHIPS Directed-energy weapons are possible thanks to close collaboration between the Department of Defense and industry partners. Here are a few of the contracts that are shepherding these weapons from the lab to the battlefield:
uOctober 2015: The Navy awarded a $53 million contract to Northrop Grumman to develop a seafaring laser weapon that was successfully tested aboard the USS Portland in May 2020. uMarch 2018: The Navy awarded a $150 million contract to Lockheed Martin for two of its high-energy laser and integrated optical-dazzler with surveillance systems; one unit will be installed on a Navy destroyer and the other will be used for land testing. uMay 2019: The Army awarded Dynetics and Lockheed Martin a $130 million contract to build and test a vehicle-mounted laser weapon; that contract was updated in May 2020 to support the development of a more powerful laser. uAugust 2019: The Army awarded a $203 million contract to Kord Technologies to build two competing 50-kilowatt laser weapons for Stryker combat vehicles; subcontractors Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are building the prototypes. uAugust 2019: The Air Force awarded a $23.8 million contract to Raytheon for two prototypes of its high-energy laser weapon system. — Matt Alderton