Martian invaders beamed fiery destruction on Earth in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, first published in 1897, 20 years in advance of the quantum theories of Albert Einstein, whose extremely excitable photons became the scientific basis of ray guns.
Reeling forward through Buck Rogers, Star Trek and Star Wars, it seems like we’ve been living with ray guns forever — when, in fact, the Department of Defense is just now developing the first such weapons that could be practical on the battlefield.
The first field artillery laser weapon is what Dynetics expects to build for the U.S. Army. The Huntsville company was named the prime contractor for the weapon — the High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle — with the award, in May, of a $130 million contract to the team of Dynetics and Lockheed Martin.
“It is the outgrowth of a lot of work the SMDC (Space and Missile Defense Command) did in directed energy work,” says Ronnie Chronister, Dynetics senior vice president of contracts. “People for a long time thought of it as a Star Wars type weapon, but the technology had to be improved for something that could be put on a vehicle and used as a weapons system.”
The “Star Wars” Chronister refers to is not the movie, but the ambitious missile defense system of Ronald Reagan known officially as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and popularized as Reagan’s Star Wars program.
“I used to be a threat assessment guy at the (Redstone) Arsenal,” says Scott Stanfield, director of strategic programs at Dynetics, referring to his Star Wars years working at the Missile and Space Intelligence Center. “That was 30 years ago, when they were dealing with big liquid lasers the size of buildings. You have to look at those threats, and so you need a building to set up the power generation dissipation. Clearly, there has been a lot of development in the last 30 years since that time, to get to fiber lasers at the 100K power level mounted on a tactical platform. The technology had to catch up.”
“Fantastical” rather than “ambitious” might be more apt for the SDI laser program, which called for an array of space-based laser weapons that would detect and deter any nukes fired at the U.S. A 1987 study by the American Physical Society concluded that none of the prospective systems were anywhere close to deployment. Energy output had to be increased by 100 times to sometimes a million times to be conceivable.
It takes a lot of light — photons — and you have to get them extremely excited, as Einstein put it, as well as deliver them with precision over considerable distances.
Firing them from outer space is still far fetched, except for the aspirations of the defense industry. In March, defense officials asked for $304 million to fund research into space-based lasers next year — motivated by a new generation of super fast, hypersonic missile threats. “Hypersonic” means faster than the speed of sound, and lasers fly at the much greater speed of light. “But just figuring out what might work is a difficult technical challenge,” reported defenseone.com.
Developing a laser that has enough power and accuracy for use on the battlefield has not been easy either, but it is now close to reality, say Dynetics officials.
The contract that Dynetics won began with an Army Request for Proposals for a 100 kW laser on the back of a rugged army truck. Dynetics was one of six companies that responded by putting their concepts on paper. The competition was narrowed down to two, Dynetics and Raytheon, in the preliminary design phase before the final award, which is to develop the system and make a demonstrator by fiscal year 2022.
One key to Dynetics’ contract win, says Chronister, was the company’s location near Redstone Arsenal. “I think that was a big deal: to do the work right outside their gate,” he says.
But the foremost advantage to the win, says Chronister, was teaming with Lockheed Martin. Lockheed’s Laser and Sensor Systems division in Bothell, Washington, is “the frontrunner in the development of the laser beam and control. They know how to track and control that beam and put the right amount of power onto the target,” says Chronister.
In 2017, Lockheed unveiled a world record-setting laser weapon, sporting a 58 kW laser beam. “We have shown that a powerful directed energy laser is now sufficiently light-weight, low volume and reliable enough to be deployed on tactical vehicles for defensive applications on land, at sea and in the air,” said Robert Afzal, Lockheed’s senior fellow in Bothell.
Now Lockheed is bringing the power up to 100 kW, and Dynetics will be tasked with mounting it on an Army truck and showing that it works.
For the Army truck, the Dynetics contract team includes partner Rolls-Royce LibertyWorks, which will also design the integrated power and thermal management system to meet requirements for the High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle.
Dynetics will be in charge of putting all the pieces together and demonstrating that it works.
That it works, that is, on the battlefield, which means knocking out weapons large and small that threaten Army missile defenses on the ground.
The weapon Dynetics will put together and test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico by the delivery date of FY2022 is designed “to defeat UAF (unmanned flying vehicles) and mortar fire and intended to protect air defenses, Patriot and THAAD missiles, field air defense assets,” says Chronister. “We will help to define the requirements, and once that is done, they develop a more formal program to build several of these.”
The great advantage of such a weapon comes in reducing the cost of defending missile emplacements from attack by much smaller weapons, including mortar rounds and swarms of UAVs.
“The systems now employed use rockets for shooting down rockets and rockets for shooting down UAVs,” says Chronister. “Initial capability deployed will counter those threats. Beauty of the directed energy solution is that once you get it right, the cost per kill is a lot lower.”
Cost, says Stanfield, can be reduced to something comparable to $50 mortar rounds, and with a high-energy weapon, there will be “much deeper magazines,” a lot of rounds.
Chris McFadyen is the editorial director of Business Alabama.