The US Army’s directed energy program is at a crossroads.

While Raytheon boasts the operational success of its high-energy laser weapon systems (HELWS), integrating this technology into the Army’s mobile arsenal proves challenging.

Stumbling Out of the Gate: 50-Kilowatt Laser Prototypes Encounter Issues

Initial tests of 50-kilowatt laser prototypes mounted on Stryker vehicles, part of the Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD) program, yielded less-than-stellar results.

Army acquisition head Doug Bush highlighted to the Senate Appropriations Airland subcommittee last Wednesday, May 15, the difficulties of “incorporating [a 50-kilowatt laser] into a vehicle that has to move around constantly.” Heat dissipation, electronics strain, and wear-and-tear in harsh environments were major concerns.

However, the picture isn’t entirely bleak.

Raytheon’s HELWS, already deployed by the Air Force with over 25,000 operational hours, showcases the potential of directed energy weapons.

Their affordability and near-limitless “shots” compared to traditional missiles make them a game-changer.

A single, expensive missile can take down a cheap drone, while a laser can expend minimal energy for the same result. This cost-effectiveness is particularly attractive considering the growing threat of low-cost, commercially available drones increasingly used by adversaries.

Powering Up: The 300-Kilowatt IFPC-HEL and Beyond

The program also explores higher-powered lasers.

Lockheed Martin is developing the 300-kilowatt Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL). This behemoth promises significant defensive capabilities, potentially engaging targets at greater distances and with more destructive power.


While not yet delivered for testing, it represents a significant leap forward in laser technology.

Bridging the Gap: From Prototype to Battlefield Reality

The challenge lies in bridging the gap between promising technology and battlefield practicality. Integrating these powerful lasers onto mobile platforms requires overcoming engineering hurdles.

The 50-kilowatt DE M-SHORAD prototypes struggled with heat management and the constant jostling of a moving vehicle.

Scaling up to even more powerful lasers like the IFPC-HEL will necessitate creative solutions for heat dissipation, power management, and overall system robustness.

Budgetary Crossroads: Balancing Innovation with Cost Constraints

Additionally, the Army faces budget constraints.

Funding for DE M-SHORAD has been cut by $38 million for the next fiscal year, raising concerns.

Senator Angus King voiced these concerns aptly during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, asking, “What in the hell are you people thinking?

King questioned the funding cuts considering the cost-effectiveness of lasers against drones compared to expensive missiles.

The Army argues that these cuts are a “natural progression” as prototypes transition to production stages.

However, reduced funding for DE M-SHORAD and IFPC-HEL paints a concerning picture.

While streamlining development is important, a significant funding decrease could stifle innovation and delay the deployment of this potentially transformative technology.

The Future of Laser Defense: Revolutionizing the Battlefield

The path forward requires a delicate balance.

The Army must address the technical hurdles of integrating lasers onto mobile platforms. Simultaneously, it must convince budget decision-makers of the long-term cost benefits compared to traditional munitions. Success in these areas could revolutionize battlefield defense.

Imagine a future where soldiers wield near-limitless, precise laser fire against drones and missiles. This would drastically reduce collateral damage, a major concern in modern warfare.

Additionally, the logistical burden of carrying and supplying ammunition would be significantly reduced.

Soldiers wouldn’t need a constant stream of missiles; a single laser system could provide persistent defense with minimal logistical needs.

The benefits extend beyond cost and logistics. Lasers operate at the speed of light, eliminating the need for complex calculations and lead times associated with traditional munitions. This translates to faster reaction times and a more robust defense against rapidly evolving threats like drone swarms.

Conclusion: Balancing Challenges to Unlock Potential

The US Army’s directed energy program holds immense potential.

Overcoming the current challenges is crucial to usher in this new era of laser defense and ensure the US military remains at the forefront of technological innovation.

Balancing technical hurdles with budgetary realities will be key to unlocking the potential of directed energy weapons and revolutionizing the battlefield of tomorrow.