Warfighters will one day be able to fire lasers from fighter jets while in combat and strike enemy hypersonic missiles in space and incinerating enemy drones from armored combat vehicles.
Lasers and other laser technologies—such as rangefinders and spotters—are already used in many applications and are even deployed on Navy ships. At the same time, the Pentagon and military services are moving quickly to develop newer, stronger, and increasingly mobile laser weapons. Much of this includes what is known as “laser scaling” and altering the size, weight and power of the lasers so that they can be used by fighter jets and ground vehicles. They might even be used to destroy enemy intercontinental ballistic missiles in space or fast maneuvering cruise missiles.
The Army has enlisted the services of several defense industry contractors to create a high-energy laser (HEL). For example, General Atomics-Electromagnetic Systems (GA-EMS) is engineering a HEL able that can fire anywhere from a 100-kilowatt-class to a 300-kilowatt-class laser with integrated thermal management, beam direction and precision tracking software. The GA-EMS prototype HEL laser is a smaller version of the seventh-generation distributed gain design that the company has already demonstrated. The laser system employs two seventh-generation laser heads in a compact and lightweight package. Recent architectural improvements have enabled single-beam distributed gain lasers to achieve comparable beam quality to fiber lasers via a simple design that doesn’t require beam combination.
For example, the GA-EMS HEL could be mounted on a large tactical truck to protect with the threat of cruise missiles a forward-operating base or advancing convoys or troops, large mechanized forces, installations or the transportation of ammunition and supplies. Currently, 50-kilowatt lasers are being fired from tactical vehicles and even armored vehicles such as Strykers. But much of the key scaling work that GA-EMS is focused on centers upon harnessing the laser energy necessary to reach 300-kilowatt for cruise missile defense and intercept, incinerate, and destroy large maneuvering targets. One application under development is the integration of a large, high-power laser onto an Army Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck or HEMTT. The success of this endeavor will bring mobility to ground-based tactical defenses. It will allow them to transport, store and draw upon the large amounts of exportable power sufficient to support a 300-kilowatt or larger laser.
In modern-day warfare, increasingly powerful lasers are needed to intercept incoming explosives traveling at high speeds.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Defense Department