By Ann Roosevelt

Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) is moving forward toward a mobile speed-of-light laser weapon system that could, late in the next decade, potentially become part of the Army’s battlefield systems.

The driving force for the program is: “Getting a laser capability into the soldiers hands and providing a level of force protection specifically against the counter rocket artillery and mortar threat,” Bill Gnacek, SMDC program manager for the High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator (HEL TD), told Defense Daily in an interview.

The program has support within the Army, and is funded through the Program Objective Memorandum.

A laser weapon capability could counter threats faced right now by U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gnacek said. A laser system could potentially look at defending forward operating bases, air bases, fixed installations, and similar assets. It would not be confined to the Army, but be a joint service force protection and weapon capability.

HEL TD would consist of a laser weapon system mounted on the Oshkosh [OSK]- produced Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) that already exists in the Army inventory.

Boeing [BA] is working on beam control system completion and system engineering (Defense Daily, Aug. 28). Northrop Grumman [NOC] is working on system engineering for the beam control system.

The mobile solid-state laser weapon system would be a deployable, self-sustaining lethal capability that could operate across the spectrum in a networked-information-based environment.

SMDC has long been involved with lasers and their potential on the battlefield, efforts that brought forth greater understanding of the issues, but uncertain funding and support from the military and Congress.

One recent effort was the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) used for testing at the Army’s High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility (HELSTF) at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (Defense Daily, Dec. 6, 2001). A changing threat led to consideration of a mobile THEL program, caught in the toils of budget cuts and the changing political environment.

No laser weapon system would operate on its own on the battlefield, Gnacek said. “Lasers are not the catchall. We will work with missiles, so that it gives the Army dual capability. Both operate in different environments with different levels of efficiency. We’re complementary to the missile defense capability.”

There are essentially five major subsystems for HEL TD: the beam control system (BCS), laser, thermal management, power, and the HEMTT.

“I am developing the system, Gnacek said. “We are looking at the whole aspect of the weapons capability. Right now, because we are resource limited we are concentrating on the beam control system.”

The laser has the power, but “you have to have the beam control system to take that energy to focus on a target so you can destroy it,” he said.

The BCS doesn’t face technical challenges so much as the need to make it rugged and supportable for the troops, he said. “What we want to do is make the components that you have to replace easily replaceable.”

As a system it also must fit within the Army’s tiered maintenance system and be supportable.

Lasers are being developed by the Defense Department and by industry. “In the end game we will still have to have a ruggedized laser, something that will have to withstand the vibrations of the vehicle and the environments of the battlefield before we can really move forward with that capability,” he said. “That’s really the next hurdle for the laser subsystem.”

The HEL TD must balance what would give the Army an effective weapons capability and getting it out to the field in a reasonable time–as quickly as possible.

“That’s what we’re trying to do right now is get it out of the lab and into the soldiers’ hands so they can evaluate it so they can determine is it a useful weapons system and they’ll also develop the approaches to how they can use it so what it’s really doing is a level of military utility,” Gnacek said.

The system is designed with an open architecture, and is modular so new and emerging technologies can be plugged in as they become available, without going back to redesign the system, he said. Modularity allows expansion. The design is also scalable.

HEL TD does not depend on work done in other offices right now. When the program is ready, “we’re going to take the best available laser that industry or government has available at the time that it is appropriate to interface it with our beam control system and put them on the vehicle,” he said. “There may be new technology that comes along that is a more efficient or better laser and we’ll obviously look at that also. Somebody may have a breakthrough that nobody has envisioned at this point in time so we’re keeping our options open.”

The program has targeted 2016 as the time to integrate a rugged laser and the beam control system together, he said

SMDC recently exercised options for BCS development with Boeing and Northrop Grumman. That work will continue until approximately the third quarter of fiscal year 2010, when there will be BCS low power demonstration.

“This will be with a surrogate low power laser to demonstrate that the beam control system can do all the things that we said it’s going to do,” he said.

About year later, in the third or fourth quarter of FY ’11, if as planned there’s a high power solid state laser available at HELSTF at White Sands, a HEMTT will be put next to the building housing the surrogate laser and the program will demonstrate the high powered laser with the beam control systems.

HEL TD testing will be done using HELSTF and White Sands ranges because it’s unique–a relative operational environment. “It’s not like I can go test it in Iraq, but it’s the closest thing to putting in an environment that it would have to operate in if it were in some type of area of conflict,” he said.

Meanwhile, work on integrating a container to house the weapons system–the BCS and other components of the weapon system was part of the preliminary design and competition work.

“We feel comfortable at this point that the vehicle that is part of the present exercise option that Boeing will support, which is the HEMTT, will support our path forward,” Gnacek said.

“We’re trying reduce as much risk as possible to the development of weapons system,” he said. “And, also, even though we’re developing weapons capability from a system standpoint, this is still a technology demonstration.”

Additionally, the program is working to help the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) with requirements definition, offering a perspective on what the system can provide.

The program also works with the Air Defense Artillery and Field Artillery schools soon to be joined as the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Okla. HEL TD ensures the lines of communication are open so program analysis can be vetted for authenticity and fits into what they are trying to develop.

“It’s the real thing versus somebody’s science fiction dream,” Gnacek said of HEL TD. We’re developing a weapons capability versus just developing a piece of technology.”