Directed energy weapons making a great leap forward
Paul Shattuck is director and chief engineer for Directed Energy Systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. He’s been with Lockheed since 1974, with a focus area of the development of beam control technologies for High Power Laser Directed Energy Systems. He spent most of the 1980s developing and testing beam control technologies for the Strategic Defense Initiative, culminating in a simulated ground demonstration of a pace-based laser engagement of enemy ballistic missiles for President Reagan in November 1987. For 15 years he held various leadership roles on the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, including program director during the design and development phase, and Remote Site Test Director leading the team responsible for integration of the beam control/fire control system on the Airborne Laser and for all ground and flight tests
He recently spoke with Defense Systems contributor David Walsh about ramped-up interest in directed energy (d-e) technology and laser (“beam”) weapons, including Lockheed’s ATHENA test, in which a laser burned through a truck engine a mile distant.
Defense Systems: Since Hughes Corp.’s research division demonstrated the first laser in 1960, have the various types and sizes and wattages on offer from industry, DARPA and its kin changed fundamentally?
Paul Shattuck: The most significant change has been the transition from chemical lasers to fiber lasers in the last decade, which has real implications on size [and] on wattage. The fiber laser weapons we’re developing at Lockheed Martin [for example], require less platform “prime” power and cooling to place the most energy-on-target to defeat threats at a longer range. The approach scales with advancements in higher power and lower weight solutions.
The lasers also have a better efficiency rate, allowing greater use of power to generate a high-quality beam that requires less time to dwell and successfully eliminate the target.
DS: There’s been a dizzying sort of wafting and waning of interest in weaponized directed energy – what’s called directed energy weapons (DEW). To what period and what circumstances do you trace this slow evolution-to-warp speed revolution process? Certainly there seems a big ramp-up in DEW interest and activity.
Shattuck: We are at the convergence of laser weapon technology maturity - and tactical mission needs - in the new threat environment like swarms of drones or small boats, for example. On the technology side, [government and industry are] leveraging advancements in fiber optic communications and the power scale from industrial drilling and cutting applications to developing beam-combination techniques. That lets us create a single, high-power laser beam.
Lockheed's Paul Shattuck
We’re also taking advantage of data and image processing speeds from the video game industry to make the beam control system more accurate and precise.
Meanwhile, rockets, mortars and small-unmanned aerial systems are presenting an increased threat around the world... Customers are looking for precise, affordable, rapid-response firepower to defend against these threats. Laser weapon systems can fill that gap.
DS: Reports indicate your firm is fast moving or leading in development of 100-kilowatt and 300-kilowatt laser guns for the Army and possibly Air Force, and that they should be available/deployable by 2022. Please give a snapshot of the technology and a few of the likely uses by the armed forces and Homeland Security.
Shattuck: Lockheed Martin has been investing internal research and development funding to mature the technologies and integrated system operation. We started by developing a ground-based 10-kilowatt prototype using a commercial laser, a program we call Area Defense Anti-Munitions, or ADAM. In 2012 and 2013, ADAM shot down 19 small-caliber Quassam-like rockets and an unmanned aerial system in flight. We also disabled two Zodiak-type boats.
In 2014, we scaled up power by integrating our Lockheed Martin 30-kilowatt ALADIN laser with the ADAM architecture and beam control to create our Advanced Test High Energy Asset, or ATHENA, prototype. In our early testing, ATHENA stopped the engine of a truck, and last year we defeated four quad copter drone targets.
Last year, we began production of at 60-kilowatt system for a U.S. Army vehicle – the first laser built using a modular technique. The Army has the option to add more modules and increase power from 60 kilowatts to 120 kilowatts as a result of the laser’s modularity.
As we’ve demonstrated in our testing so far, these ground-based systems can defend against close-in rockets, mortars and unmanned aerial vehicles.
DS: And beyond the terrestrial?
PS: We have also demonstrated air applications for laser weapon systems with our DOD customers. We developed the beam control system for the Missile Defense Agency’s airborne laser that shot down a boosting ballistic missile in 2010. That system used a megawatt-class chemical laser, but it was a strategic mission in which the target was in front of the aircraft.
Today, we are looking at tactical missions that require that a laser weapon system be able to fire in virtually any direction, which means we had to overcome the aircraft’s atmospheric wake that would scatter the laser beam. In about 60 flight tests of Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control, or ABC, turret design for [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and the [Air Force Research Lab], we demonstrated that we can counteract turbulence, which is an important step for integrating lasers onto aircraft.
Air-based laser weapon systems can offer flexibility and precision for self-defense against aircraft, missiles and weapons on the ground. They also have offensive potential, including precision ground attack against defended targets or swarms of attack boats.
DS: SECNAV Mabus at the Directed Energy Summit last year signaled the need for much closer stakeholder ties, melding government agencies, the national labs, think tanks, DOD, industry, academia, so the U.S. can “stay ahead of the threat.”
PS: Those [connections] are critical. That’s how we’re going to get directed energy technology into the hands of our warfighters. A great example of that was our ABC turret program, which was a partnership of AFRL, DARPA, Lockheed Martin, the University of Notre Dame, Georgia Tech Research Institute and several small businesses.
DS: From industry's, and by indirection your DOD partners' viewpoint, are we playing catch-up to the bad guys in D-E offense in similar fashion to cyber offense - where some assert we've lagged due to our longtime focus on the cyber defense piece?
PS: Directed energy offers the ability to cost-effectively counter asymmetric threats, both offensively and defensively.
DS: Are we adequately positioning ourselves technologically to get the jump on the enemy, or, at least, to fight fire with fire? The Naval Research Lab, Naval Postgraduate School and others are developing counter- d-e programs. Are you likewise engaged?
PS: Yes, we are looking at countermeasures to directed energy to ensure systems’ effectiveness.
DS: Given that commercial airliners in the U.S. are increasingly “lased,” how aggressively are the Pentagon, industry, electronic warfare offices and the d-e community overall working to confront not just bored kids with laser pointers, but tech-savvy enemies with advanced tools and lethal intent?
PS: Lasers provide one option to defend an area such as an airport.
DS: In particular, from yours and other top contractors' point of view, what are the most pressing or daunting threats, or troubling tech challenges, to the deployed force and the homeland – that is, the types of lasers and possible countermeasures?
PS: We’ve demonstrated that laser weapon systems can defeat the threats, so I think the greatest challenge is continuing on the growth path to shrink size while increasing power – and getting that technology to the users.
DS: Where do the threats originate? Do you see ISIS, for one, as acquiring worrisome stand-off capabilities?
PS: [Threats] are global, both state and non-state actors from the air and at sea.
DS: What solutions in the d-e toolbox are reckoned to be effective for enemy challenges, tactical, strategic or otherwise; like perhaps multiple swarms of enemy drones?
PS: Laser weapon systems will bring advantages of speed, flexibility, precision and low cost per engagement. Regardless of whether the weapon is mounted on an air, ground or sea platform, our warfighters are going to need that capability to address future threats – like swarms.
DS: Are all bets off should the drone swarms be carrying lasers or chemical and biological weapons?
PS: Because of the small size of drones, they are not going to be able to carry a very powerful laser. They won’t have much effect against a much larger ground or sea system.
DS: In your ATHENA demo - using what SECNAV Mabus would call an emerging operational capability – a tactical laser melted part of a truck engine. But the vehicle was static. How long before the same task could be accomplished against an enemy's armed vehicle on the move – and at what speeds?
PS: The technology and the systems are capable of taking out a truck on the move. Speed-of-light [186,000 m.p.h.] weapons have destroyed rockets and small boats, so we know we can defeat moving targets.
DS: Along similar lines, how did the Athena laser differ from what the Navy's USS Ponce demos used on moving craft?
PS: The primary difference is our approach to use spectral beam combination to increase the power of the laser to send one beam, compared to discrete laser devices incoherently combined on the target.
DS: Which '’laser gun” systems may be employed for dual offensive and defense?
PS: I think we’re most likely to see dual systems on aircraft, where size and weight are limiting factors. Laser weapons are going to have to buy their way onto airborne platforms by fulfilling multiple missions. In general, most defensive laser systems could be used offensively as needed.
DS: Some are expected to boast variable power settings for a range of missions. Which types of lasers are, so to say, handiest in this regard? And, in basic terms, how do they work?
PS: That’s one of the advantages of a fiber laser; you can dial the effect by applying more or less power. As an example, we can vary power to blind a camera on a drone, take out the camera or bring down the entire drone.
DS: Lockheed Martin last year announced a solution to turbulence, which can cause laser beans to go awry. What are the implications including safe fire for this phenomenon, and does the buffeting more greatly affect low- or high-power beams?
PS: We’re working up to laser weapon systems that could operate on fighter aircraft.
DS: Again on d-e inter-connections and sharing: how wide-ranging among the military, DARPA, the federal agencies and defense contractors? Broader and deeper than in the past? Everyone pretty much on board?
PS: Yes, we’re seeing a lot of collaboration between the services and industry.
DS: What’s your take on ground-based lasers against small-boat exploits, and smaller rockets and artillery shells or mortars?
PS: This is the capability we’re demonstrating with our ADAM and ATHENA lasers. The technology is coming of age as a realistic solution for ground platforms against small, close-in threats.
DS: Please address the cost differential issue: DEWs are expensive on the front end, lots cheaper on the back than kinetics.
PS: We are on the wrong side of the cost curve to defend against small, slow, low-flying threats. Our customers shouldn’t have to use a munition worth tens of thousands of dollars to defeat a $600 drone. With lasers, as long as you have fuel, you essentially have unlimited bullets. And you don’t need to cover logistics and storage for munitions.
DS: So, beam weapons can be made powerful enough for the variety of the tasks the services and others are bound to ask of them?
PS: Yes, our goal is to continue to advance the technology to achieve incremental increases and reach operationally relevant SWaP – size, weight and power.
DS: What are the implications of milestones met and dramatic demos like yours and the Navy’s U.S.S. Ponce experiences – where a laser beam destroyed a drone from a ship on the high seas?
PS: We’re showing that the technology is advancing and proving that it can be used against new threats on various platforms. Plus, we’re learning the collateral benefits of these systems. Our prototypes send out low-power lasers to collect data on the atmospheric conditions and distance to the target. This data is enabling the battle commander to identify targets at much longer ranges to increase situational awareness dramatically.
The Navy is gathering important information about rules of engagement and how to use lasers on the operational battlefield, that will set precedents for how lasers are deployed going forward.
DS: What are highest hurdles the Pentagon must overcome technically or otherwise before provable DEW systems are deployment-ready in the various battle spaces?
PS: Primarily, identifying the tactics, techniques and procedures needed to determine how systems will be deployed. That’s what will create a program of record and get the technology to warfighters.
DS: What impact will a DOD Program of Record designation for various relevant military entities have on the contracting world?
PS: We see the great potential for this technology across multiple platforms. That’s why we’re investing our [Independent Research and Development] to lay the groundwork. We want to be ready to address customers’ requirements and get laser systems to the users.
David C. Walsh is a freelance writer covering defense IT.