The US Air Force is all set with its newest high-energy laser weapons system to fortify defenses against airborne security threats and take the forefront in the global military arms race.

Speaking of other literally high-speed Air Force projects, the USAF is developing a Mach 5 Monster poised to smash speed records held by the venerable SR-71 Blackbird. 

US defense giant Raytheon Technologies recently promoted its latest state-of-the-art high-energy laser (HEL) technology for air defense and counter-UAS ( unmanned aerial systems) at the recently-concluded International Defense and Exhibition Conference (IDEX) 2023 held in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

IDEX 2023 is dubbed as “the only international defense exhibition in the MENA region demonstrating the latest technology across land, sea, and air sectors of defense… (establishing) relationships with government departments, businesses, and armed forces throughout the region, (and providing) solutions provide solutions against pressing issues in the world defense sector.

According to Raytheon’s director of requirements and capabilities, Jeff Newsom, the aerospace defense company developed a “relatively new technology for air defense and counter-UAS,” and its HEL technology is the first operational system that has real hours behind it.”

Newsom explained that the system has 25,000 operational hours, over 400 other drone defeats, and an existing licensing for its HEL technology in over 45 countries, including several in the Middle East.

US Defenses Are Now Ready With High Energy Laser Technology

RTX Intelligence and Space engineering director and chief engineer for high-energy laser weapon systems Justin Martin said that the leading US defense and aerospace giant has moved well beyond more basic science and technology projects and is now ready for the US defense with its HEL technology.

 “We’re producing HEL weapon systems, we’re deploying HEL weapon systems, and we’re putting them in the hands of our soldiers to beat these real threats that they’re facing today. It’s critically valuable that we’ve gained the experience of deploying laser weapons systems overseas and have accumulated approximately 25,000 hours with impressive reliability. We’ve got a lot of systems doing a lot of work and about 400 successful engagements at this point in time.”

“Because of that experience and soldier feedback, these systems are ready now. We’ve got the factory to produce them and demonstrated their effectiveness against the threats. We’ve also trained the soldiers operating these systems, who we call laser gunners, and proven that they can use these systems effectively.”

The US Air Force now has a state-of-the-art counter-UAS High Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS), a lower-power system using up to 15 kilowatts. “We’ve delivered those systems to the Air Force that are now deployed in OCONUS locations,” Martin said.

Raytheon’s Programs Focus On  Specific Threats  

Raytheon’s programs are focused on countering specific threats such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), cruise missiles, rockets/artillery/mortars (RAM), and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), among others.

RTX designed its two major programs — DE M-SHORAD and UAS Defeat —  to address these threats. 

The US Army’s  Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD)  is a directed energy weapon system that utilizes ground-based laser weapons capable of engaging targets up close or at stand-off distances as far away as five kilometers, depending on the target type.

The said program also includes an integrated missile launcher for intercepting longer-range threats such as SRBMs or cruise missiles. 

The UAS Defeat program, on the other hand, uses a variety of directed energy weapons, including ultraviolet countermeasures with electro-optical sensors designed specifically for defeating swarms of low-cost UAS threats in extremely cluttered environments. Traditional radar may fail or be overwhelmed due to clutter effects from other sources such as buildings or trees.

HEL Technology Programs Focused On Security Threats 

RTX officials said that the company’s HEL technology programs address specific threats such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles, rockets, artillery shells, guided bombs, and hypersonic missiles.

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By utilizing its powerful directed energy capabilities, Raytheon’s HEL systems offer solutions against these threats by providing rapid response times and pinpoint accuracy across short standoff distances. 

The US Army’s  DE M-SHORAD, program is one example of their efforts to protect military personnel by providing an effective air defense system to detect, track, identify, and engage low-altitude aerial threats from up to 10 kilometers away.

Kristian Alexander, a senior fellow, and head of the Strategic Studies department at the TRENDS research and advisory think tank in the UAE, echoed  Raytheon’s sentiments on this crucial development in HELW technology.

“High-energy lasers can be particularly effective against drones due to their flexibility and precision. They can quickly acquire and track targets, and can engage multiple targets simultaneously. Additionally, they are not limited by the number of interceptors available, as they can engage targets as long as they have sufficient power and cooling.”

Alexander further stressed that  using high-energy lasers for air defense in the Gulf region could significantly affect the regional balance of power.

“Currently, the use of drones for military and non-military purposes is widespread in the region, and traditional air defense systems may not be as effective against small, low-flying drones. High-energy lasers could provide a new tool for countering these threats and could potentially enhance the defense capabilities of Gulf region countries,” he added.



The Latest on the DE M-SHORTRAD Program

Raytheon recently announced successful tests with its PHASER High Energy Laser Weapon System under the Army’s DE M-SHORAD program. 

This program aims to provide an integrated air defense platform capable of defeating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles, rockets, artillery shells, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft. 

During testing conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the PHASER system demonstrated its ability to defeat multiple UAV targets at extended ranges.

HEL As An Essential Tool in Tiered Air Defense Network

As more countries look to protect their borders from airborne threats such as UAVs or cruise missiles, HEL is quickly becoming an essential tool in their layered air defense networks. 

By combining these systems with traditional interceptors like missiles or cannons – making up what is known as “tiered” air defense – nations can create more robust defenses against low-flying and higher-altitude threats. 

For example, Israel has successfully implemented this strategy against incursions by Hezbollah forces into Israeli airspace via UAVs or drones.

How Raytheon Made the HEL Tactical Packaging Possible

Raytheon’s approach to making high-energy lasers tactical was to solve for SWaP (size, weight, and power), combat capability, ruggedization, and conveyance.

By utilizing its expertise in mission systems integration and understanding of military operations within confined spaces, Raytheon was able to develop solutions for all of these areas.

RTX developed advanced thermal management solutions for size and weight reduction, allowing its experts to reduce the size and weight of the system by more than 50%.

Additionally, Raytheon incorporated advanced embedded computing technology,  reducing power consumption while providing robust capabilities and performance.

Finally, the aerospace giant also integrated active cooling technologies, which enabled them to manage better heat loads generated by high-powered laser systems to maintain operational readiness throughout extended engagements.

Solving the Challenge of SWaP and Combatting Capability

Raytheon’s solutions in addressing  the challenge of SWaP and HEL technology’s combatting capabilities, according to Martin, include:

  • Designing unique cooling systems that allow for larger components to be placed within a small space without compromising performance or power output
  • Creating highly reliable fiber lasers with improved beam quality to make them suitable for defense applications
  • Developing ruggedized enclosures that are capable of withstanding harsh environmental conditions 
  • Designing their system so it can be easily integrated onto aircraft or other military platforms with minimal modifications.

Martin explained that Raytheon was able to surmount these challenges:

“I’m an engineer. I love science and technology. But here at Raytheon, when it comes to HEL, we’re not in science and technology anymore.”

“For decades, HEL was a major SWaP and logistical challenge. Laser sources were inefficient, which meant that you had to generate much more electric power than you were getting out of the laser. You needed large power and thermal management systems to deal with these inefficient laser sources. That’s not the barrier today as there’s been a lot of investment by commercial and defense industries in that area, as well as in the development of fiber lasers.”

“Today, one of the barriers is that it takes a lot of expertise and investment to tactically package a complex weapon system. Rather than focusing on that, many investments today have gone into what I call “science and technology demonstration systems” where you end up with lasers on 747s and on really big trucks because that’s more aligned with science and technology.”

“We’re using solid-state fiber lasers, which are commercial laser modules that are slightly modified and packaged into a cheaper, smaller, more reliable weapon, and something that can be produced in any quantity as opposed to, again, being more of a lab instrument. Our HEL systems are real laser weapons on real platforms to be used by the Army and Air Force against real threats today.”