Magazine article National Defense

Directed Energy Weapons Gaining Acceptance across U.S. Military

Magazine article National Defense

Directed Energy Weapons Gaining Acceptance across U.S. Military

Article excerpt

No longer the stuff of science fiction, laser technology is progressing rapidly. Throughout the services, officials are banking on new directed energy weapon systems, which promise to offer the military precision strike at a low cost for both defensive and offensive missions.

"There is absolutely a niche I believe for use of directed energy weapons," said Col. John Vannoy, SOCOM's program manager for rotary wing. "The lens we are looking at this through right now is: 'Is it feasible to do this?' We're not at the point where we've laid out a business case to advance it."

The command envisions using a laser weapon to destroy vehicles or generators versus sending in a missile that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said during an industry conference hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association in Tampa, Florida.

Vannoy's office and the Army's Apache office have entered into a cooperative research and development agreement with Raytheon to put a podded laser on the aircraft, he said.

"We really want to understand the environment on the wing, the beam quality we can get off the wing and the ability to beam steer and keep power on a target," he said.

Environmental factors such as dust could affect beam quality. In addition, the vibrations on an Apache's wing could affect steering, he said.

Vannoy did not disclose a specific timeframe for the test or when results would be made public.

The effort to equip an Apache with a laser is still in its infancy, he said. "I wouldn't say that we're at the tipping point and you're going to see a Star Wars-like effect or a Death Star laser hanging off the side of a rotary wing aircraft," he said.

A directed energy weapon could also be mounted on an MH-60 Black Hawk, he noted.

Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.G-based think tank, said based on the relatively small size of a helicopter the laser would likely have between 15 and 30 kilowatts of power.

"That would pack a pretty good punch" at short ranges against a soft target, he said.

If SOCOM decides to move forward with the effort to equip a laser on a helicopter, PEO rotary wing would work closely with its fixed-wing counterparts in the command, Vannoy said.

Currently, PEO fixed wing is working to outfit an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship with a directed energy weapon.

"We communicate between the two offices daily," Vannoy said. "There will be limited redundancy. We'll be working together to advance that. But their requirement, I would expect... [it] would be different. They've got a larger capacity on a C-130 than we do."

AFSOC has been planning to put a laser on the gunship for years. Officials recently said the command is on track to equip the aircraft with a laser weapon by the end of the decade.

Working alongside Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren in Virginia, the service recently wrapped up the first phase of a two-part study that will give the command greater clarity on the maturity of commercially available systems and potential design concepts, said Lt. Col. John DiSebastian, director of fixed-wing tech insertion at SOCOM.

AFSOC plans to use commercially available technology to develop different parts of the laser--such as the power source or beam director--but the command will be the lead integrator of the system, he said.

"We're not looking for a single company to come in and take the lead. We're looking for individual components where the government will control the interfaces," he said. Similar to "our previous gunships, we would put one capability on and then grow it and then add another and build upon it."

Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, AFSOC commander, has made the development of the laser his pet project. During an industry conference hosted by CSBA in June, he noted that the system is often called the "Heithold laser" because he talks about it so often. …

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