No, the Army is not building the Death Star.
Contrary to what is in the movies, directed energy does not emit a large red laser, nor does it make a loud noise, and if done right, the target will simply fall out of the sky, not explode in brilliant shards of light, set to a John Williams score.
But that is not to say that directed energy is not making remarkable strides in record time. Take Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense, or DE M-SHORAD. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center, the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office have joined with industry partners to build the next generation laser weapon. And they did it in less than three years.
“DE M-SHORAD is a 50-kilowatt class laser weapon system on a Stryker vehicle,” said Damon Templet, DEVCOM AvMC software lead for DE M-SHORAD. “In simple terms, we have an onboard thermal and power system that dissipates heat and recharges the system’s batteries. The laser is fired off the batteries. The beam comes out of a roof-mounted beam director. If you grew up on ‘Star Wars,’ it’s a little disappointing to learn that the beam makes no sound and isn’t visible to the eye. A tracking system puts the laser beam on a target and then the optimal aimpoint is maintained until the track is neutralized.”
The system does not pull a trailer nor have a dedicated support vehicle. Everything needed is mounted on the truck, which gives it an agility advantage over older systems. Another key component of DE M-SHORAD is that it is more cost-effective than firing multiple high dollar missiles at low value targets.
“Cost is a huge advantage,” Templet said. “It costs roughly a gallon of diesel fuel to take ou
t a UAS with a DE system. Compare that to firing high dollar missiles against a $2,000 drone.” One of the big advantages we talk about in the DE world is a greatly reduced logistics trail. We don’t need big warehouses to store large amounts of missiles and rockets. We don’t need to transport and maintain large amounts of munitions. A DE weapon system doesn’t run out of ammo. If there is fuel in the tank to recharge the batteries, the system is ready to defend.”
AvMC’s Technology Development Directorate and Software, Simulation, Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate is providing RCCTO with verification of software and requirements, test support and analysis, and support regarding system integration issues. AvMC also provides the management and operation of a government DE lab that performs verification and validation on the DE M-SHORAD software.
The system is being continuously improved through Soldier touchpoints and live fire test events. RCCTO will deliver a platoon of four vehicles and begin new equipment training for Soldiers in the coming months.
“As you can imagine, the unit is very excited about this,” Templet said.
Huntsville, Alabama, is quickly becoming a hub for directed energy development. For Templet, DE M-SHORAD isn’t just novel weapon system, it is very personal. Before he was an engineer, he was a Soldier.
“I know how horrible it feels as a Soldier to watch enemy munitions fly over your position, or explode over your head and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Templet said. “At a DE event a few years ago, young Soldiers told me about attempting to fire M-16s at enemy drones.
“DE provides an extra layer of protection to our Warfighters. We owe them that.”