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Technology bringing laser weapons from fantasy to reality

Technology bringing laser weapons from fantasy to reality

In February and March 2017, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Command shot down a number of unmanned aerial vehicles with a 5kW laser mounted on this Stryker during Hard Kill Challenge at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army)

By Rindi White

Watch pretty much any human vs. alien movie, and you’ll see at least one side doing battles with lasers — often firing visible red blasts toward their target.

For years, military tech employees have been working to find a way to use lasers on the contemporary battlefield. And they’re making headway. Laser weapons are increasingly being incorporated on a number of platforms and in training exercises, said Matthew Ketner, branch chief of the High Energy Laser Controls and Integration Directorate at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia.

Ketner spoke during Lab Day at the Pentagon in May. He said the Navy, in 2014, placed a 30-kilowatt laser on board the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport dock ship. After extensive testing, the laser is now authorized for defense use.

Using lasers to bring down unmanned drones is the current testing focus for the Army, Ketner said. He cited a training example in which one 10-kilowatt laser was placed on a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck and tested during a Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment in April 2016 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The laser successfully shot down several unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

In February and March, U.S. Army Space and Missile Command shot down a number of UAVs with a 5-kilowatt laser mounted on a Stryker during the Hard Kill Challenge at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

The purpose of that challenge was “to assess and look at technology … to do a ‘hard kill’ shoot down of Group 1 (UAVs) and inform decision-makers on the current state of technology and how it can deal with single and multiple targets,” said Adam Aberle, SMDC High Energy Laser Division technology development and demonstration lead.

Matthew Ketner, branch chief of the High Energy Laser Controls and Integration Directorate at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Virginia, shows the effects of laser hits on materials during Lab Day in May at the Pentagon.  (Photo by David Vergun/Army News Service)

The draw of high-energy lasers is that they can be a low-cost effective complement to kinetic energy, Aberle said. Lasers may be able to more effectively address rocket, artillery, mortar or RAM threats, as well as UAVs and cruise missiles. Additionally, they are silent and invisible to the human eye and therefore hard to detect by the enemy, Ketner said. And they have a near-perfect strait trajectory, unmarred by the weight and wind resistance of traditional artillery rounds.

Ketner said a laser beam can also be scaled to its target. He displayed an array of objects hit by a laser, from steel plating to carbon fiber and Kevlar. He also showed a fried circuit board, a destroyed fixed-wing UAV and a quadcopter, all of which had been destroyed by a laser beam.

The power of the beam can be adjusted for any material and can be dialed down to the point where it’s nonlethal to human targets.

The downside, he said, is that lasers take a lot of energy and have difficulty penetrating haze, dust, smoke and materials with anti-laser coatings. But overall, he said, lasers are likely to be a valuable tool in the military’s arsenal.

“Unlike a traditional gun, lasers don’t run out of bullets,” he said.

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