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Aerospace and Defense Channel

Taking Directed Energy Systems to the Battlefield

RF- versus Laser-based Systems

February 18, 2014
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Strategy Analytics ADS service attended the IQPC Directed Energy Systems 2014 event to catch an update on the progress that Directed Energy Systems (DES) are making from laboratory concepts to workable solutions that can form a realistic addition to existing weapon system arsenals.The use of technology can have a direct impact on the force effectiveness and reducing casualties, and directed energy systems arguably represent the current leading edge of science and technology in the military domain comprising use of the electromagnetic spectrum across RF-based and laser-based technology solutions.

The challenge for leading edge technologies is always in making a successful transition to market or in this case the battlefield.  Issues that need to be addressed to enable a successful transition include:

  • Credibility – technologies can often promise significantly more than they can deliver within a reasonable timeframe and budget and this has often hamstrung programs and hurt the credibility of emerging technologies. Systems underpinned by new technology solutions need to be able to offer “good enough performance” that enables merging technologies to demonstrate effectiveness as well as support faster fielding (months rather than years) of solutions based on these technologies.
  • Economics – along with achieving credibility, the “good enough performance” has to be achieved as part of a system solution that can justify the investment made in a new technology. Given the current era of fiscal austerity facing defense budgets, emerging technologies and the systems they underpin should ideally deliver evolutionary capabilities that can slot into the existing arsenal of capabilities while minimizing economic risk through operational and through-life cost effectiveness.
  • Effective policies need to be developed to enable new technologies to be fielded successfully. This is in turn requires effective management of issues related to standard operating procedures (SOP) as well as public perception.

A Tale of Two Technologies

While directed energy systems can encompass multiple technologies, High Power Microwaves (HPM) and laser based systems represent the highest profile technologies. While efforts have been ongoing in both areas, there appears to be a distinct divergence emerging in the potential timelines associated with future use.

RF-based DES includes HPM that use significantly higher power levels than those typically associated with Electronic Warfare (EW) Electronic Attack (EA) applications such as jammers. Other examples include High Electromagnetic Pulse (HEMP) systems designed to target electronics while avoiding or minimizing collateral damage.

Current examples include Boeing’s Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), which is a weaponized HEMP program designed to enable the targeting of electronics in a missile format. Other recent examples include e2V Technologies’ RF Safe-Stop product which uses high power RF (based on magnetrons) to disable vehicle engines. US DoD Non-activities under the remit of the Joint Non-Lethals Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) have included the RF Vehicle Stopper (RFVS) as well as the fielding of HPM payloads on UAV platforms. At DES 2014, newly established DefTech highlighted its products which included an EMP Generator-based personal gun capable of disabling vehicle electronics. The 3kg device emits multiple frequencies and is powered by replaceable batteries that allow for 10 shots. Another product being highlighted by DefTech was the active rubber belt designed to be used by police forces to stop speeding vehicles.

Most of the products highlighted are either still in development or still in the early stages of consideration for operational fielding. Perhaps the most high profile RF-based DES is the Raytheon Active Denial System (ADS) which demonstrates a product that has been built and tested (credibile) and is combat ready (economically viable?) but has fallen foul of policies influenced by negative media and public perception.

On the other hand, while the use of a laser based DES has yet to be fielded, the development of these systems continues to make progress and has reached the point of making them viable solutions that can be integrated in existing ground-based air defense (GBAD) operations. Boeing provided an update on the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL-MD) with recent tests demonstrating the viability of HEL-MD, using a 10kW laser, when used in conjunction with an AESA radar. The company is working towards a 100kW goal using COTS-based lasers and spectral coupling while maintaining an emphasis on low operational and through-life costs.

Rheinmetall also provided an update of its DES capabilities which uses beam superimposing to combine 10kW, 20kW and 30kW lasers in combination with existing fielded C-RAM systems. Static tests in 2012 employed five superimposed beams to generate a 50kW beam. Further tests in 2013 demonstrated usage across a range of power levels with systems integrated on a range of platforms to demonstrate use across various applications including air defense. Video demonstrations showed the system taking down an attack by UAVs, while a lower power demonstrator was used to take out a mounted gun on a vehicle as well as measuring the eye safety of the system on the insurgent (a dummy) operating the gun.

In Japan, Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) is also looking to develop air defense systems. At DES 2014, KHI outlined the military research and development activity KHI has been involved in since 2003, leveraging the company’s expertise in Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) technology used for industrial applications. A major study in 2010 focused on the use of COIL-based laser technology used in conjunction with incoherent beam combining to demonstrate a system that could be suitable for air defense air defense. KHI has studied the various issues surrounding the COIL beam, beam propagation, pointing and tracking and fire control. Other companies working with KHI include NEC and Mitsubishi Electric. KHI is moving towards a final phase in 2014, which will examine full power COIL operation used in conjunction with passive and active IR tracking and a laser beam director with ground-to- air tests planned for Japan Fiscal Year 2015. Moving forwards, the company is also looking at other laser based systems that can be used instead of the COIL technology to replace the use of chemicals.

Other companies are also developing capabilities along the lines of incorporating laser technologies into existing capabilities, with Israel-based Rafael incorporatinglaser technology into its Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) Iron Dome system. Iron Beam will be officially announced at the Singapore Air Show 2014 (running February 11th to 16th).

Laser Weapons Moving Ahead

Laser technology for incorporation into short-range air defense systems appear to meet the criteria discussed above of a credible directed energy system solution that can be fielded cost effectively, while also effectively addressing the policy implications of using laser-based weapons, e.g. eye safety, and operational procedures. In contrast, RF-based technologies are still looking for an effective usage case with perhaps the effective use of HPEM for disarming electronics eventually displacing the policy and perception stricken use of microwaves for use against personnel.

Recent Articles by Asif Anwar, Program Director, Strategy Analytics

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