Richard Yaw, PhD, the director of air and missile defense and the chief of the high-energy laser division at the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., discusses the Mobile Experimental High-Energy Laser, the future of battlefield directed-energy weapons, capabilities, and more with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor. The MEHEL program originally fitted a 2 kilowatt laser, radar, targeting as well as power and cooling systems on a standard Infantry Fighting Variant of the service’s Stryker wheeled combat vehicle. The power of the laser has been upgraded twice, first to 5 kilowatts and then to its current confirmation of 10 kilowatts. At the same time, the vehicle is being used to help Army leaders develop new tactics to take maximum advantage of future operational laser weapon systems for air defense applications spanning from downing unmanned air systems to more demanding missions like countering artillery, rockets, mortars and other threats.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Huntsville, Alabama at Redstone Arsenal, one of the most historic arsenals in the United States Army and we’re here at the Space and Missile Defense Command to talk to Dr. Richard Yaw, a retired United States Army colonel who is the Director of the Air and Missile Defense Center here and also the Chief of High Energy Laser work here at the command.
Sir, thanks very much for the time.
Dr. Richard Yaw: Thank you very much. Glad to have you here.
Mr. Muradian: It’s a pleasure. We’re here for, obviously, the AUSA’s Annual Global Force Symposium, but it’s great. It was a much more ambitious effort to take a look at the MEHEL capability, the 3.0 version of the Mobile Experimental High Energy Laser system which is a first of its kind vehicle. Someday this is going to end up in an Army museum and you guys were going to do a shoot-down test where you were going to use the 10 kilowatt laser, solid state laser, on the vehicle to shoot down some drones for us, but unfortunately weather intervened.
Talk to us about why this is such a significant vehicle in the history of battlefield laser development.
Dr. Yaw: Well, you said it. The name of the vehicle is the Mobile Experimental High Energy Laser. An experimental platform. This is actually the first time all of the components of a High Energy Laser system, the laser itself, the beam control, the command and control systems, the power systems, thermal cooling parts and components, have all been integrated in a combat platform. It’s a platform relevant to what the combat formations in the Army today are using and are projecting to use in the near future. So really, from that aspect, it’s very historic in just the packaging of it.
The other part of it is, it’s the first time we’ve had a chance to put a system together to look at what tactics, techniques and procedures the concept of operations that the Army might employ if and when a full-up High Energy Laser system is fielded.
So from those two aspects, this system has given us a chance to experiment with components to develop a High Energy Laser system that soldiers can actually use on the battlefield.
Mr. Muradian: Obviously the role of this is first for drones and thin-skinned vehicles, but obviously the Army wants to expand this. You went from five kilowatts to ten kilowatts. You want to get to 50 kilowatts. But there’s this sense with lasers that every five years it’s still only five more years away. But everybody in the laser field has been telling me that we’re actually a lot closer to being able to field actually working military products. Talk to us a little bit about that. What’s next, how this plays into it, and how soon it’s going to be before we have a battlefield capability that we can use not only defending against thin-skinned targets, but obviously the guided rocket mortar which is a threat, especially when you’re considering an anti-access area denial environment where the enemy can fire a lot of stuff at you and you’re then on the wrong side of the cost curve. So beams of light actually become really handy.
Dr. Yaw: They do. The concept here is that this is a 10 kilowatt demonstrator. You’re right, 50 kilowatts we feel like is kind of the entry level to get to threats that really we feel are impacting the soldiers of today and tomorrow. We’ve demonstrated through other experimental platforms that 50 kilowatts is enough to track and to kill certain rockets, artillery, mortar threats. So that’s kind of the entry level for a tactically relevant vehicle, so that’s where we’re going with this vehicle.
But you mentioned, it is an old saying that High Energy Lasers are the weapon of the future and always will be.
Mr. Muradian: That’s what I was kind of alluding to a little bit.
Dr. Yaw: Yeah. It’s kind of funny. But now we really are on the cusp, as you said, of being able to put some good capability, High Energy Laser capability in the hands of soldiers within the next three to five years.
For example, this platform right here will inform a follow-on program to use a Stryker vehicle just like this, put a 50 kilowatt laser on it, and demonstrate that in a combat-like environment, in an exercise about the middle part of 2021. So that’s pretty soon, a couple of years out. We’ve never been that close before, to actually putting a laser combat system in the hands of soldiers.
Mr. Muradian: It’s really extraordinary and it’s a very exciting period. And that program is going to be the Multi-Mission High Energy Laser that will be on the Stryker body.
One of the key things is, you’re taking an enormous amount of energy and you’re converting it into light, but in the process you’re generating an extraordinary amount of heat. So there are two questions. One is, one of magazine depth and portable power. How much power you have to be able to shoot effectively. I remember when this was, many decades ago, was the Tactical High Energy Laser, was a large construct in order to be able to generate the power, the capacitor banks, in order to be able to do it. Now you’ve made that portable.
So a two-part question. How deep is your magazine? Because obviously any commander wants magazine depth. And then the second question is, how much farther do you have to go on a heat management standpoint, given you generate an extraordinary amount of heat in order to be able to use the weapon?
Dr. Yaw: I think it’s widely known that High Energy Lasers are somewhere around 20, 30 percent efficient. So if you want to generate 50 kilowatts of output that means you have a lot of heat that’s getting extracted out the other end. I don’t want to get into specifics of the magazine depth and all that, but it all has to do with rate of fire and what you’re trying to kill and all those things. But we kind of feel that essentially this going to be an inlet on a magazine. I think that’s what I want to say about that.
What we really want to get to is try to increase the efficiency of the laser so there’s not so much heat you have to worry about and then reduce the size and weight of the power and thermal management component so that they’re just not so big and take up so much space. Reduce the size of the laser and maybe increase the power output. So there’s science and technology work to be done. But we feel like right now we’re at a point where we can get something meaningful to the soldiers and they can use it.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit about where the state of the art is. Once upon a time, I know that the United States Army has been a leader in laser investment and technology development for very many decades. But we have great power competitors. Both Russia and China, who are putting an extraordinary amount of investments themselves in these kind of capabilities because if it’s a good idea and you can, you don’t need million dollar missiles or thousand dollar missiles, but $30 beams of light effectively, which is what your target is.
Talk to us about what the state of global play is in terms of the technology and where the United States and its adversaries stand in this field.
Dr. Yaw: Again, I don’t think I want to get into the specifics on that but the open source kind of illustrates that we aren’t the sole holders of High Energy Laser technology. There are other countries who are working it kind of in parallel. We do collaborate with our allies and we’re all sort of tracking the same target, so to speak. I won’t say that I notice a whole lot of discrepancy, but I think sometimes the adversaries are different depending on what country you’re talking about, so we’re just trying to track how we can do against our adversaries.
Mr. Muradian: Talk to us a little bit about how each of the military services are also partnering and cooperating. The Air Force because of the Airborne Laser program did some extraordinary work on the mirror technology to make sure that you can get through the dense lower atmospherics particularly. Navy has been doing a lot of that work, has a laser deployed on USS Ponce in the Gulf. Talk to us a little bit about how you’re working with each of the military services to get sort of the best ideas, collaborate, and actually mutually accelerate all of your programs.
Dr. Yaw: We are collaborating very highly with all the other services. We have sort of different problems, right? The Air Force is trying to employ lasers from aircraft and they’re shooting through the atmosphere downward. We’re generally speaking on the ground trying to shoot through the atmosphere either horizontally or upward. So the atmosphere does different things to lasers, depending on how you fire through them.
The Navy, on the other hand, if you’re talking about a ship-based laser, the nautical environment is vastly different from what we would encounter say in the deserts of the Middle East. So from that perspective we can kind of learn off each other but we’re trying to address different problems.
The lasers are the same, pretty much. We’re all going after similar objectives in the size, weight and power. Generally speaking the beam control systems are the same. So there are aspects that we can collaborate on and we’re doing that very well. Two weeks ago all the services were together talking from a common perspective on the parts of the problems that we can solve together.
Mr. Muradian: From a lower atmosphere perspective, are all of those challenges, whether for particulate matter or for humidity, clouds, rain and all of that, has all of that basically been sorted out at this point? Because that was historically always used as a case that that’s going to be a limiting piece of the technology and why we need kinetic systems as well, whether guns or missiles?
Dr. Yaw: Well, there’s work to do. To a large extent, we’ve done some of that work with lower powered systems. So now that we have higher energy lasers developed and usable, we need to get out there and do some more data collection and understand more fully what happens with the high powered laser in the same atmospheres.
The other part of it is, a lot of times we understand how the laser interacts with the atmosphere, but we can’t really predict what the atmosphere is going to be on any one occasion. So we have some modeling and simulation work to get to that problem.
Mr. Muradian: The last question. When you say that your goal is $30 per shot, that’s an extraordinary target. We’re not saying this is the same, for example as a standard missile, but that’s a multi-million dollar weapon, for example. The same with THAAD or with Patriot. Talk to us what kind of step change we’re talking about with the mass fielding of systems like this. Lasers like this, that really would change the dynamic calculus of what future warfare looks like.
Dr. Yaw: We’re not really comparing with, you mentioned some ballistic missile defense, some strategic level missile defense systems. We aren’t really assessing against those. But in terms of Army air defense, depending on what particular air defense system you’re talking about, the cost per shot could be several hundred dollars up to several thousand or a million dollars, depending on the capabilities of the particular system. Like you said, the goal for a High Energy Laser System is to come in at about $30 per shot. That’s, roughly speaking, the amount of fuel it takes to store enough power to fire the laser. I’ve heard things like a cup of diesel, something like that. At Army fuel prices that equates about right. That’s a pretty big incentive to pursue these things.
Mr. Muradian: Dr. Yaw, thanks very, very much. Best of luck on the program. It’s really incredible to see a vehicle like this. Thanks very much for spending the time with us.
Dr. Yaw: Thank you. Thanks for coming.