HUNTSVILLE, Alabama – It looks like just another big, sand-colored Army truck – except with R2-D2′s boxy cousin sitting atop the back. This is the Army’s High Energy Laser Technology Demonstrator, and the hope is it will lead to a system that uses beams of light to hit and destroy an enemy’s incoming rockets, artillery and mortar rounds before they can hurt soldiers or civilians.
“We still believe that directed energy really is the next leap forward in weapons systems for the United States,” said Greg Hyslop, Boeing vice president and general manager of Strategic Missile and Defense Systems, at a news conference this week. “Once we harness the precision and the power of light on the battlefield, that’s going to give our warfighters a tremendous advantage.”
Boeing in Huntsville, working with the Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, recently finished mounting a laser Beam Control System and other hardware on an Oshkosh Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck.
When fully operational, the HEL TD’s optics and sensors will acquire and track a target, then focus and direct a high-powered laser beam generated in the truck’s cargo area to destroy the threat. Just getting the high-tech optical system in a ruggedized container that can fit in an Army vehicle and get beaten around out in the desert and other rough terrain is a big step, said Mike Rinn, director of Boeing’s Directed Energy Systems in Albuquerque, N.M.
“This has probably one of the most accurate pointing systems in the world,” he said. “And at the other end there will be a high-energy laser.”
HEL TD will be rolling and part of experiments at the High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility – HELSTF – on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at the end of July, said Terry Bauer, program manager for SMDC, headquartered on Redstone Arsenal. Low-power laser tests will characterize the beam control, tracking and engaging targets. Then they’ll be ready for a high-powered laser that could do some destruction.
Those exist, but so far they’re big, chemical lasers, like the ones used by the Airborne Laser Test Bed or the Tactical High Energy Laser systems, said Dr. Michael Lavan, director of SMDC’s Emerging Technologies Directorate. There are a number of Department of Defense and other programs under way to develop compact, rugged, solid-state lasers.
Taking small laboratory projects, scaling them up, increasing power and getting them in a hardy form that will fit in a vehicle are among the challenges still to be solved. “It’s an engineering issue,” Lavan said. “I don’t think there’s much physics left in this program. This is engineering from here on out.”
Lavan said testing will have generated a lot of data by the end of 2012. A laser C-RAM – Counter-Rocket, Artillery and Mortar – system could be in the field in from five to 10 years, complementing those already in place that use guns or other missiles to hit incoming projectiles.
“The beauty of a directed energy weapon is not only the precision of it, but that you don’t run out of bullets,” Hyslop said. “If we can get these kinds of systems ruggedized and into the field, and have enough capability, the trail behind it in terms of logistics and support should be a lot smaller and shorter.”
“Working together, the SMDC management team, and Boeing and its subcontractors, have taken a major step toward providing our warfighters new and game-changing counter-rockets, artillery and mortars capability,” Lavan said.
HEL TD is one of three major elements in the Army’s high energy laser feasibility program, he said. Second is the solid-state laser test bed experiment, a one micron, 105 kilowatt laser which will begin field tests early next year at HELSTF in New Mexico. When some modules loaned to the Navy for tests are returned, the system will have 120 kilowatts of power, he said.
The third element is a continuing series of laser performance and effects tests. “The HEL TD will be very valuable in performing tracking and pointing experiments required to eventually put a high-energy laser beam on a target and destroy it,” Lavan said.
SOURCE: Huntsville Times