Jason LombergConsidering how different actual lasers are from Science Fiction, it’s probably a stretch to credit Luke Skywalker or Captain Kirk for the recent mass proliferation of directed-energy weapons. But in a very real way, life is beginning to imitate art. Case in point: The U.S. Navy recently awarded an $11 million contract to Raytheon to develop a vehicle-based, short-range laser weapon capable of defeating low-flying threats like enemy drones.

Raytheon’s directed-energy weapon will comply with the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Ground Based Air Defense (GBAD) Directed Energy On-the-Move Future Naval Capabilities program (catchy, huh?), which calls for a field demo of a Humvee-mounted short-range laser with minimum power output of 25 kW.

Raytheon’s laser architecture is implemented in a number of directed-energy weapon applications, including the Laser-Phalanx derivative of the classic naval Close-In Weapon System. Illustration: Raytheon."Raytheon's laser solution generates high power output in a small, light-weight rugged package ideally suited for mobile platforms," said Bill Hart, vice president of Raytheon Space Systems.

Raytheon will use its proprietary planar waveguide (PWG) technology as the basis for its directed-energy weapon. A single PWG, as big as a 12-inch ruler, can help power high-energy lasers that can successfully defeat small aircraft.

The finished directed-energy weapon will be similar to the Navy’s shipboard Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and DARPA’s Project Endurance – which aims to develop a laser countermeasures system for manned and unmanned aircraft – but the scope for Raytheon’s system will be much smaller and the environment radically different.

Raytheon’s system assumes a future where American troops on patrol could be vulnerable to UAVs and enemy aircraft – which, of course, assumes a slightly different battlefield and geopolitical situation. None of our enemies on asymmetrical battlefields like Iraq or Afghanistan possess air support or anything necessitating defensive laser weapons.

But, if the cluster-you-know-what of the F-35 has proven anything, it’s the danger in assuming that warfare is static, that battlefields won’t change, and that we’ll never again engage another nation-state in open conflict. For any scenario other than 4th-generation warfare, silver-bullet niche solutions like Raytheon’s laser are invaluable.

Later this year, researchers will test out a 10 kW laser as the first step toward a 30 kW directed-energy weapon, and the 30 kW system should be ready for field testing by 2016. The system will eventually deploy on the new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), set to go into production in 2015.

Much of the PWG architecture was already used in the GBAD program, and the Marine Corps sees great utility in a vehicle-based laser countermeasures system.

According to Col. William Zamagni, head of ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department, “GBAD employed in a counter UAV role is just the beginning of its use and opens myriad other possibilities for future expeditionary forces.”