Setting achievable expectations is critical to the Defense Department fielding its first directed energy weapon, according to a key Air Force officer.
Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) chief Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said Thursday previous directed energy efforts failed from the weight of grandiose expectations for the technology level available, like megawatts of power, resulting in huge cost overruns and years-long delays. Instead, she said DoD needs to set three expectations that it knows it can deliver: power, delivery schedule and military utility.
Pawlikowski believes directed energy weapons can “earn” their way onto platforms if proponents of the technology are careful about not overselling their abilities, which she said include not just the power from the laser but also the pointing and tracking system.
“I want a laser that works today,” Pawlikowski told an audience at the Directed Energy Summit in Washington, hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) think tank and Booz Allen Hamilton [BAH].
Pawlikowski mentioned a pair of programs she believes are on the cusp of becoming the military’s first directed energy weapon. The first, she said, is the Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS). Pawlikowski said LaWS is a 30 kW weapon able to defeat some airborne and surface boat threats. LaWS, in 2014, hit targets mounted aboard a speeding oncoming small boat, shot a Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) out of the sky and destroyed other moving targets at sea, according to the Navy.
Pawlikowski said another directed energy weapon on the cusp is the Air Force’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD), a solid-state laser air-to-air defensive system for aircraft the size of the F-35. She said the service has been investing in not only the laser technology but the turret technology to overcome the challenge of deploying the laser through the airflow around an aircraft as it flies.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) has entered testing at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Pawlikowski said. Despite being five years late, she said, the laser is “actually pretty good.” DARPA didn’t exactly meet the power objectives, Pawlikowski added, but after lessons in efficiencies in thermal management and efficiencies sand power distribution, she believes HELLADS has become a “pretty good testbed.”
The goal of HELLADS is to develop a 150 kW laser weapon system that is 10 times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, according to DARPA. With a weight goal of less than five kg per kW and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable a high-energy laser to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems. Pawlikowski called 150 kW a “magic spot” when it comes to militarily-useful lasers.