The Pentagon’s laser weapon programs are multiplying in the wake of continued advances in high-energy solid-state lasers, encouraging results from field trials, and the appointment early this year of former NASA administrator Mike Griffin as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Ongoing field trials and new construction of systems focus on high-energy lasers in the 50–150 kW range to target rockets, artillery, drones, small boats, and other tactical targets at ranges on a kilometer scale. But Griffin has hopes for developing a future generation of long-range laser-armed drones that could fill the role once envisioned for the Air Force’s Airborne Laser—boost-phase defense against ballistic missiles.
The Army Space and Missile Defense Command (Huntsville, AL) is now testing an upgraded version of its High Energy Mobile Laser Test Truck (HELMTT) at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In earlier tests with a modified 10 kW industrial fiber laser, the system, which included a beam-control system and 50 cm retractable telescope in an 8x8 military truck with a 16-ton payload, shot down small-caliber mortars and hobby-sized drones. Now upgraded with a 50 kW fiber laser from Lockheed Martin (Bothell, WA), HELMTT is going through lethality tests against harder targets. Tests of a 100 kW version are planned to start in 2022.1 This year, the Army also launched another program, the Multi-Mission High Energy Laser (MMHEL), which put a 50 kW laser on a smaller and more agile Stryker combat vehicle for short-range air defense against rockets, artillery, and drones (see figure).2