Military Review

Light and penumbra on the way of Americans to laser weapons


Recent tests of laser systems for air defense and anti-drone missions, developed in a number of projects, indicate that their use in the coming decade will only expand.

Laser weapon systems are far from a new concept, but some significant problems in their daily development remain.

According to David James of Crenfield University (UK), such systems fall into two broad categories. The first is weapondesigned to engage sights and other optical sensors, while the second focuses on combating unguided rockets and drones. Systems from the second category attract more and more military attention, as laser weapons become more efficient and energy sources are reduced in size. James noted:

“Such systems have a number of advantages. They offer almost endless ammunition ... if the power supply system is working, then the laser system will continue to function. They are relatively easy to handle, that is, the process of staff training is not too complicated. ”

From sea to land

As James noted, over the past decades a significant amount of work has been done in this area, especially in the maritime sector, where a number of programs consider the expediency of using lasers to deal with such threats as, for example, marine UAVs or small boats.

Ship-based systems began to appear first, as they have easy access to a high-power power source, while increasing the effectiveness of laser weapons makes them more accessible to the ground forces. This is most clearly demonstrated by the project of the American army to create a prototype and deploy the first combat laser system. 50 kW systems will be installed on four Stryker armored vehicles in 2022 in order to support the tasks of mobile short-range air defense, which was designated M-SHORAD (Maneuver - Short-Range Air Defense) to protect combat brigades from UAVs, unguided missiles, artillery and mortar fire, and aviation helicopter type.

“The time has come to deliver directed energy weapons to the battlefield,” said Neil Tergood, director of the Office of Hypersonic, Directed Energy and Space Weapons in the US Army, during the issuance of the contract. - The army recognizes the need for directional energy lasers, which is provided for by the army's modernization plan. This is no longer a research or demonstration activity. This is a strategic combat opportunity and we are on the right track, which will lead it right into the hands of the soldiers. ”

Lasers could play a key role in countering UAVs in the future battlefield

As James noted, such developments could help fill the gap in potential combat capabilities, especially regarding UAVs. When a large number of drones appear on the battlefield, ground forces must be able to cope with the threat. Currently, this problem is being solved by firing small arms and machine guns from a very close range, although it is obvious that direct fire here is very difficult. A kinetic alternative would be ground-to-air missiles. However, unlike missiles, drones are much cheaper to manufacture and operate.

“The economic argument for is that it’s not profitable for you to use missiles in a swarm of drones, since missiles will then end very quickly. You must keep your arsenal of missiles for more important purposes, such as aircraft or helicopters. ”

Another advantage of lasers is their speed.

“Since the“ ammunition ”moves at the speed of light, in fact, even if you place the beam on the target for a moment, you will fall into the drone ... even if it crosses your line of sight at a terrible speed, you simply point the laser at the enemy’s platform - and your goal. "

Regardless of the threat

Craig Robin, head of the US Army's Directed Energy Project Office, agrees with this point of view, adding that laser weapons systems are also indifferent to threats.

"Most materials do not hold heat, if you focus the laser on a mine or a drone, your effect will be fatal."

All this, of course, gives advantages from a financial point of view, but at the same time, laser systems can reduce the volume of material and technical supplies for the military.

“With regard to kinetic means, you must make rockets, you must service the rockets, you must write them off. "This clearly does not apply to weapons systems with energy supply, that is, the logistics load is significantly reduced with them."

Robin’s office is part of the RCCTO’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office. Under the leadership of Tergud, the organization is working on introducing new technologies into experimental developments that could reach soldiers. Directed energy is the main focus in this activity.

In the work on the M-SHORAD laser, the achievements of the previous MHHEL (Multi-Mission High-Energy Laser) project were used, which also provided for the installation of a 50 kW laser on a Stryker machine and the manufacture of one prototype in 2021. However, the RCCTO decided to expand the scope of the project, so it is currently planned to deploy four lasers. Working in partnership with Kord Technologies' lead contractor, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman are competitors in this project, offering their prototypes M-SHORAD.

RCCTO is involved in other projects in the field of directional energy. The main emphasis is on indirect fire protection provided by the weapon system installed on the Stryker machine. The goal of this project, known as the Indirect Fire Protection Capability - High-Energy Laser and representing the further development of the High-Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator program, is to switch from a 100 kW system to a 300 kW laser and supply it to the troops by 2024.

The army previously installed a 10-kW laser on a Stryker machine as part of the MEHEL (Mobile Experimental High-Energy Laser) project, which formed the basis of M-SHORAD work.

The decision to increase the armament power was based on the successful development. As Robin explained: “With regard to the sophistication of the technology, industry investments have helped to significantly accelerate the entire process and achieve good results.”

Fiber optics

Scott Schnorrenberg of Kord Technologies said that there has been a transition from solid-state lasers to spectrally combined fiber devices, "which are significantly more efficient, which reduced their size." He added that the obvious progress in the field of high-capacity batteries, power generation systems and thermal regulation plays a big role, allowing very powerful laser systems to be installed on relatively small combat vehicles.

Kord is currently focused on the development of technology as part of the R&D phase and its use in the development of a prototype and in subsequent serial products. Schnorrenberg also pointed out the advantages of lasers in terms of logistics, noting that “they are also equipped with powerful sensors to obtain additional capabilities for collecting information and target designation on the battlefield.” He believes that after deploying systems under the M-SHORAD project and other programs, the scope of lasers should expand in the coming years.

Light and penumbra on the way of Americans to laser weapons

In the near future, military users will need to master the principles of the combat use of laser weapons systems.

“You see that lasers are developing rapidly, capturing other platforms and expanding the range of tasks, for example, destruction of explosive objects, counteraction to reconnaissance means, high-precision aiming, concentrated radiation power and high-speed data transmission. An expanding range of potential goals will undoubtedly contribute to an increase in the range of basic platforms on which laser systems will be installed. ”

Evan Hunt, head of the high-power laser department at Raytheon, also noted the possibility of target tracking with laser systems.

“At the touch of a button after identifying the drone as a threat, you can instantly knock it down, and it will be such a fast-moving process when the crash begins at the same time as the button is pressed. "This is a revolutionary way of hitting targets in comparison with traditional ammunition, which may well not fall into and shatter into fragments in different directions."
"We are talking about a new type of technology that allows you to quite independently detect, track, identify and hit targets in a way that can potentially be used even in relative proximity to industrial or residential areas, without causing great damage."

Shooting down drones

Along with participating in the M-SHORAD project, Raytheon pays special attention to the development of laser weapons to combat small drones, in particular, in its concept of "laser dune buggy" - a powerful laser in combination with a proprietary multi-spectral sighting system mounted on a cross-country vehicle Polaris MRZR.

The system is being manufactured for the US Air Force; in 2020, the delivery of three platforms is planned. At the end of the same year, these three mobile units will be deployed abroad for operational evaluation.

During numerous shows for the Air Force and the Army, Raytheon shot down more than 100 drones from its buggy. The Air Force could use the system in a number of tasks, for example, a car can be parked at the end of the runway to interfere with or destroy unwanted UAVs entering the airspace. Hunt noted:

“Lasers have indeed confirmed that they are the most accurate and effective means of direct damage to drones. “The magic combination” of characteristics allows you to silently and inconspicuously disable several drones at once in a very accurate and inexpensive way, so they are not as destructive as kinetic weapons. ”

Before laser weapons enter service in significant quantities, it is necessary to solve a number of urgent problems. Robin noticed that the laser itself is one of the three important elements of the armament installation along with the beam controller, which accurately directs the beam at the threat and accompanies it, and the subsystem of generation and energy management. The latter subsystem should be compact enough for installation on vehicles, although in this case you can take advantage of developments from the automotive sector, in particular the development of battery systems that contributed to the rapid development of electric vehicles. “You want to drive your electric car at the same speed for a long time, which is very similar to how you want the laser to work,” Hunt continued. “The requirements for this technology and lasers are similar and here they overlap.”

According to James, downsizing energy systems is a limiting factor. He expects the U.S. Army and its partners to face problems placing such equipment in a Stryker machine. In addition, he noted that not all targets in the M-SHORAD system are the same and there are questions about what level of damage will be necessary for platforms of various types.

“If these are just drones that you are hunting for, then this narrows the range of targets in that regard, the nomenclature of the materials from which they are made is reduced. If this is a very large drone, then perhaps you should use a surface-to-air missile. ”

On the other hand, according to James, the range is the most important factor to consider: the greater the distance you want to cause damage, the more power is needed. He noted that the atmosphere is full of various particles that scatter light, that is, there will never be one hundred percent light transmission. At a distance of one kilometer, the atmosphere can be permeable by 85%, that is, 15% of the light will not reach the goal. At a distance of more than 5 km, losses can be 50%, "that is, half of the photons are simply lost, the laser beam loses its strength and does not reach the target."

Learn to fight

“The main challenge for military users will be training to deal with an expanding set of targets,” said Chris Fry, director of the Northrop Grumman’s near-missile defense air defense system unit, although he noted that they are moving away from experimental and technological demonstrations and are turning to actual use by soldiers, which “Will allow us to adopt, adapt and improve technology.” In addition to the M-SHORAD project, Northrop Grumman worked with the U.S. Army in a number of other directional energy programs, as well as with the Naval Research Department, DARPA, the Air Force Laboratory, and other customers.

The development and deployment of the prototype M-SHORAD for the US Army is based on the work on the project MMHEL

“The focus is on building comprehensive base systems,” Fry added. “This is not only about the laser, but the whole system: radar, command and control system, network, platform, power generation and control. The maximum efficiency of all these components and the way they work together are important to maximize the potential of the system. ”

Northrop Grumman said that although the size and power characteristics of the systems have been significantly reduced over the past decade, they expect this process to accelerate in the coming years. The ability of laser systems to accompany threats and “hold photons on target as much time as necessary to provide the desired effect” has also significantly increased.


Schnorrenberg said the biggest challenge at the moment is production constraints. Due to the limited number of laser systems developed to date, the production base is undeveloped, that is, the most important components still need to be developed for large-scale production scenarios.

“The US government is investing in the development of a manufacturing base to solve this problem,” he added. “Ultimately, industry will eventually provide executive mechanisms for developing this base.”

This is key to the US Army’s goal-setting regarding the M-SHORAD program. The contract announcement noted that the selection of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon "will foster competition and stimulate the industrial basis for building directed energy systems."

James hopes that in the coming years the laser will develop as a military weapon in its own way. Although he doubts that lasers will work as completely separate systems, he believes that they will certainly become an essential complement to other weapons. It is unlikely that air defense systems, for example, will consist of lasers alone, but they will become part of a wider system, including missiles. In addition, in order to fight targets at ultra-short distances, the military will most likely wish to leave a separate soldier.

“Perhaps lasers will forever become part of the core system.”

“To make lasers truly effective and more useful to the US Army, their cost must be reduced,” said Robin. However, any technology emerging from a niche market, over time, begins to play a more prominent role.

"As prototypes and demonstration tests become more and more - not only in the army, but also in other types of aircraft, we will soon see the expansion of this market and the reduction in the cost of laser weapon systems."
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  1. Ka-52
    Ka-52 22 May 2020 05: 44
    “You want to drive your electric car at the same speed for a long time, which is very similar to how you want the laser to work,

    Don't do it (for now). All of today's laser systems, by analogy with automobiles, are hybrid. The rechargeable battery provides “instantaneous power” and at the same time relieves power surges during laser operation. But the main source of electricity is a generator powered by internal combustion engines.
    1. Klingon
      Klingon 22 May 2020 09: 10
      Are you an expert on the energy components of laser systems?
      it meant that a compact laser needs a small, but capacious battery, such as electric cars like a Tesla, so that it can be put into a small car. So they wrote about the analogy
      1. Ka-52
        Ka-52 22 May 2020 09: 41
        Are you an expert on the energy components of laser systems?

        and apparently you haven’t finished school yet. Otherwise, they would understand that the words
        in particular, the development of battery systems that contributed to the rapid development of electric vehicles. “You want to drive your electric car at the same speed for a long time, which is very similar to how you want the laser to work,” Hunt continued. “The requirements for this technology and lasers are similar and here they overlap.”

        we are talking about full power supply from the STOREDED energy. But now it is not. None, even "compact Tesla" batteries, will not be enough to create the peak performance of a combat laser. I think the next 30 years
        a compact laser needs a small battery

        the main volume is just not the battery, not the generator, and not even the laser itself. Most of the space falls on the internal combustion engine and cooling system
    2. voyaka uh
      voyaka uh 22 May 2020 18: 20
      "But the main source of electricity is a generator powered by an internal combustion engine." ///
      Not only from ICE. It can be an airplane jet engine. Or gas
      ship turbine. They, through the generator, recharge the batteries
      or supercapacitors.
      But, as they prepare a machine gun belt with cartridges, you can prepare in advance
      block of supercapacitors. And the laser will have, for example, 50 shots-pulses.
      1. Observer2014
        Observer2014 22 May 2020 22: 49
        voyaka uh (Alexey)
        can be prepared in advance
        block of supercapacitors. And the laser will have, for example, 50 shots-pulses.
        yes Yes. It is possible. It remains only to invent "Supercapacitors". It is not enough to invent. It is necessary to invent a sufficient size for the need of a future small-arms laser device. The impression is that we are very close to a laser machine gun. And at the same time, we are still very far from it as a full-fledged weapon.
        1. voyaka uh
          voyaka uh 22 May 2020 23: 33
          I did not mean small arms. Machine-gun belt
          was given only as an example of consistent
          and fast pulse firing.
          We are talking about the near air defense.
          Compactness is less important for him.
          And supercapacitors are already invented.
  2. Free wind
    Free wind 22 May 2020 07: 08
    Lasers cannot be ignored. 20-10 years ago, they laughed at the Americans, at the unmanned vehicles. They laughed, caught themselves, When the Bedouins were already, they began to make them in chums, out of shit and sticks. Likewise, we giggle with the laser, cut, cut. Yeah saw cut, Laser pointer is a toy with a beam of 20 watts. In the dimensions of a round flashlight. With a diffuser attachment, the "starry sky" effect, projects the image onto clouds at night, not up to 2 km high. Burns out the retina at a distance of 100 m. This is of course not indicated. Here's a cut for you. Can be bought semi-legally. Three years ago, there were no such proposals.
    1. Interdum_silentium_volo
      Interdum_silentium_volo 25 May 2020 10: 52
      20 years ago, the Russian army itself was like "Bedouins", and could not afford anything, and it was natural and usual to redirect finances to the most key components of the air defense and strategic missile forces, without giving money for any secondary developments. engaged in UAVs in the roots is not true that in the USSR there were also works in the iron La-17R (59g development 63g flight), Tu-143, Tu-300.
      And look at the SS-01 Komar, the first flight of 81 years, Bee-1T, Bumblebee-1 - reconnaissance UAV. The first flight took place in 1983.
      Everyone understood and did everything, the question is only in the final result. And all sorts of Tu-123, Tu-141 had a potential that many UAVs did not dream of today.
    2. Alexey LK
      Alexey LK 27 May 2020 04: 58
      More than 20 years ago (even more than 30) the 1K17 Compression laser complex was created, for example, as well as something else. So if you or someone else then laughed, then some worked and achieved concrete results.
  3. Grigory grigoryevich
    Grigory grigoryevich 22 May 2020 07: 30
    I wonder how reliably lasers work in dust, smoke, fog?
    1. Blackmokona
      Blackmokona 22 May 2020 08: 01
      And how reliably do guidance systems work under the same conditions?
    2. Shopping Mall
      Shopping Mall 22 May 2020 08: 02
      Quote: Grigory grigoryevich
      I wonder how reliably lasers work in dust, smoke, fog?

      Problems arise in the surface layer, up to about 100 meters, then the permeability of the atmosphere becomes much higher. However, as with direct-fire weapons, uneven terrain will likely interfere with the laser on the ground.
      1. Free wind
        Free wind 22 May 2020 08: 08
        It is difficult to argue here, it is difficult for the laser to bend around the terrain.
      2. Ka-52
        Ka-52 22 May 2020 11: 53
        Problems arise in the surface layer, up to about 100 meters, then the permeability of the atmosphere becomes much higher.

        steam-water fog (cloudy in the common people) starting from 100m and above will contribute to the dispersion of the beam. This issue has already been discussed, I do not want to repeat myself
    3. Carib
      Carib 22 May 2020 08: 29
      No way in the smoke, dust fog does not work. But a little clearance and burned you ...
  4. Operator
    Operator 22 May 2020 09: 40
    There is a grain of truth in the husks of advertising slogans - ground-based / surface-mounted lasers are effective against small-sized optical reconnaissance drones in the last mile (within 1-2 km, then the laser radiation is extinguished in the atmosphere).

    Attack drones, guided by GPS in conditions of low visibility in the optical range, as well as performing anti-zenith maneuver "snake" can only be shot down by anti-aircraft missiles. In this connection, the scope of application of lasers is to supplement the air defense system to save missiles against every little thing with a pot-bellied.

    PS The "Peresvet" super-powerful airborne laser operating against the sensors of optical reconnaissance satellites does not belong to the considered class of air defense lasers.
    1. ser56
      ser56 22 May 2020 19: 44
      Quote: Operator
      on the last mile (within 1-2 km

      guns not better? especially with remote grenades?
  5. ser56
    ser56 22 May 2020 19: 43
    Direct-acting laser weapons have many drawbacks, and cannot be eliminated for physical reasons. request
    1) Low efficiency, respectively, the problem of heat dissipation.
    2) The power limit associated with optical breakdown of air.
    3) Limited mirror resource for powerful systems.
    4) The atmosphere has limited transparency windows for wavelengths.
    5) The range is limited by line of sight.
    6) The divergence of the beam, which at a certain range leads to a loss of damaging properties ...
    and this is without problems with the optical medium, resonators, pump systems, etc. request
    Now they have seized on drones as the most interesting application of lasers, but this is a conjuncture ...
    What makes it difficult to put an irradiation sensor and an aerosol racket on the drone - shoots it forward and undermines - the breakdown of escort is trite bully
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