Marine vehicles could soon have anti-drone laser guns
The Office of Naval Research is leading a program to develop a laser system small enough for a Humvee.
The military’s search for anti-drone technology has generally concerned jamming technologies or other forms of electronic warfare. The Office of Naval Research is planning to try a more direct approach: shooting them out of the air with vehicle-mounted lasers.
ONR, which also plans to deploy its first ship-based laser gun this summer, recently said it had awarded contract for development of the Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move, known as GBAD.
The laser could be used on light tactical vehicles such as the Humvee and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to protect Marine Corps units from being tracked or targeting from unmanned aerial vehicles while on a mission, ONR said in a release.
A challenge for ONR, which is developing the system along with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and contractors, will be to fit all the components — including the laser itself, beam director, batteries, radar, advanced cooling, and communications and command and control systems — into a fairly small package.
“We’re confident we can bring together all of these pieces in a package that’s small enough to be carried on light tactical vehicles and powerful enough to counter these threats,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Killea, vice chief of naval research and commanding general of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.
Considering the availability of drone technology, the military expects that U.S. forces will have to deal with UAVs more often in future conflicts. Electronic warfare is one way to counter them, but lasers have been emerging as another option. The Marine Corps Science and Technology Strategic Plan, in fact, specifically calls for development of a mobile, directed-energy weapon that can be used against UAVs.
The Army last December successfully tested a vehicle-mounted laser against mortar rounds and UAVs at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. But that system—the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, or HEL MD—was a fairly large system aboard a heavy truck. ONR is looking to develop something lighter.
One challenge in developing lasers as weapons has been in managing the power and cooling requirements. The Navy’s shipboard laser, the prototype Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, uses a solid state laser that’s less powerful than older, chemical lasers, but avoids the logistics problems and safety risks of using chemicals.
When the Navy announced its shipboard laser in February, it said LaWS’ power was classified, though experts speculated that it was between 15 and 50 kilowatts. The Army’s HEL MD was tested using a 10 kilowatt-class laser, though the Army said it planned to move up to 50-kilowatts and, eventually, 100 kilowatts. ONR said GBAD would start at 10 kilowatts and eventually move up to a 30-kilowatt laser, which it expects to test in 2016.
Lasers aren’t likely to replace conventional weapons any time soon, though they do offer advantages in some situations. Some of the components that will be put into GBAD, for example, already are used to identify and track UAVs. And lasers are a lot cheaper to fire than missiles or shells, costing only dollars per shot.