High Power Defence

USS Ponce
USS Ponce (AB(I) 15) mounting a Laser Weapon System while deployed to the Arabian Gulf in 2019. (US Navy)

After a stuttering start, directed energy/laser weapons are beginning to gain traction as viable ‘soft kill’ options for military forces.

In January 2022, the US Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) chief technology officer, Heidi Shyu, released a list of 14 technology areas deemed ‘most critical for investment’ to support the armed forces in the near future and beyond.

The list included Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), a group of emerging and disruptive technologies which have been in development for some time but which now appear to be gathering pace as the technology continues to mature. Efforts date back to 2014 when a DEW was deployed on board the USS Ponce, an Austin-class amphibious transport dock (AFSB(I)-15). When the USS Ponce was decommissioned in 2017, the LaWS was moved to USS Portland (LPD-27). Operating power was estimated at between 15–50 Kilowatts (kW) for engaging drones

According to US Government doctrine, DEW comprises multiple solutions including High Energy Lasers (HELs) and High Powered Microwave (HPM) systems, all of which can be deployed in a variety of mission sets including short-range air defence (SHORAD); counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS); and counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) missions.

High Energy Lasers

HEL weapon systems are evolving quickly with multiple companies in the US and Europe pursuing developments to support US DoD and UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) SHORAD and C-UAS missions.

On 18 August 2022, Lockheed Martin announced it had delivered a 60+kW-class HEL with integrated optical dazzler and surveillance (HELIOS) system to the US Navy. According to a company statement, HELIOS is the ‘first tactical laser weapon system to be integrated into existing ships and provide directed energy capability to the fleet’: “Integrated and scalable by design, the multi-mission HELIOS system will provide tactically relevant laser weapon system warfighting capability as a key element of a layered defence architecture.

According to Rick Cordaro, vice president, Lockheed Martin advanced product solutions, “HELIOS enhances the overall combat system effectiveness of the ship to deter future threats and … we understand we must provide scalable solutions customised to the Navy’s priorities.”

Lockheed Martin was awarded a $150m contract under the Surface Navy Laser Weapons Systems Increment 1 programme in 2018 with an initial integration of HELIOS on board an Arleigh-Burke destroyer set within just two years. A second technology demonstrator was also evaluated at White Sands Missile Range at the same time in a ground-based configuration.

Lockheed Martin HELIOS system
Deliveries to the US Navy have started with the Lockheed Martin HELIOS system providing a high energy laser with integrated optical-dazzler and surveillance (HELIOS) system. (Lockheed Martin)

At the Farnborough International Air Show in July 2022, Raytheon executives also provided Armada International with an update on their global HEL efforts. Referencing the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, Raytheon’s president for electronic warfare systems, Annabel Flores and president for land warfare and air defence, Tom Laliberty emphasised the continued proliferation of UAS across the modern battle space and subsequently, demand for DEW technologies to neutralise them: “We’re seeing real innovation in terms of how [Russia and Ukraine] are using UAS to deliver effects against ground elements and against civilian targets.”

Currently, Raytheon offers a variety of HELs in 15, 30 and 50kW configurations, according to company officials. This includes the integration of an undisclosed HEL solution on board Kongsberg’s National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) which is expected to be deployed to the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv to protect against Russian missile attack.

Flores confirmed Raytheon was also considering offering a similar capability to other NASAMS customers around the world as part of a layered air defence approach. “That was a key step to demonstrate that we can integrate with multiple other sensors and other command and control systems,” she explained at the media roundtable at Farnborough.

Raytheon is also supporting a two year programme with the UK MoD to integrate a HEL on board the General Dynamics (ex-Force Protection) Wolfhound tactical ground vehicle. The company was awarded a contract at the DSEI exhibition in September 2021. The Novel Weapon Programme is focused on using HEL for counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) tasks as well as air defence with Raytheon supported by Frazier Nash and NP Aerospace.

A technology demonstrator of the capability is expected to be evaluated by the MoD in the 2023-25 timeframe with Laliberty confirming: “We continue to work towards exporting our first system to the UK and working with our Raytheon UK partners, and the UK MoD.”

Finally, Raytheon is also in the process of manufacturing and delivering a total of four HEL solutions for the US Army’s DE-MSHORAD [Directed Energy – Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense] programme of record. The first system is due to be delivered by the end of 2022, Raytheon confirmed.

At Farnborough, MBDA UK also provided an update on the development of its own Laser DEW (LDEW) programme after several years of silence. The concept was first promoted back in 2017, featuring a consortium of the UK’s Defence Science Technology Laboratory (Dstl); MBDA; Leonardo and Qinetiq.

According to an announcement at the airshow, live fire evaluation of the LDEW, also known as ‘Dragonfire’, has already been initiated as the programme aims to “prove the accuracy and power” of the system. “The first of these trials recently conducted by the Dragonfire consortium at low power proved the system can successfully track air and sea targets with exceptionally high accuracy,” stated an MBDA spokesperson.

Dragonfire
Dragonfire, the UK’s Laser Directed Energy Programme (LDEW) led by MBDA, has successfully begun a series of trials to prove the accuracy and power of a laser weapon. Trials are progressing to a second stage which will combine high power with ‘aimpoint accuracy’. The illustration represents a warship defending against various threats. (MBDA)

The successful trials, according to MBDA, will be followed by a second phase which will see the consortium conducting a “static, high power laser trial while maintaining aimpoint accuracy”.

Looking beyond the second phase of the programme, the next steps would “combine the outcomes of these two trials, pairing the recently proven tracking accuracy and the high power laser, by engaging targets in operationally representative scenarios”.

Chris Allam, managing director of MBDA UK, said in a statement: “The success of these trials is a key step in the development of sovereign laser directed energy weapons. The essential challenge of an LDEW system is safely controlling and focusing high laser power onto an extremely precise point, at long range. The tracking trial was an excellent test of the component parts of the Dragonfire tracking system working together to do this.”

Components featured in the trial included a low power laser from Qinetiq; beam director from Leonardo; and MBDA’s s Image Processing and Control technology which enabled ‘fine’ pointing and tracking accuracy required to generate the damage effect of a high-powered laser. Leonardo’s beam director is integrated into a turret configuration to aid target acquisition of threats at various ranges and in different weather conditions on the ground and at sea. Other sub systems including the C2, Effector Management System (EMS) and ‘course’ tracking (which turns the laser towards the target) were also proved in the trial.

According to Leonardo, the aim of LDEW is to provide “short-range air defence and close-in protection” for surface vessels as part of a wider system of systems providing various hard and soft kill effects. “These include identifying, tracking and deterring a potential threat by dazzling its targeting sensors, as well as damaging or even destroying the incoming threat,” it was added.

High Power Microwave

HPM also continues to emerge as a capable DEW solution for armed forces, particularly relating to C-UAS missions. The purpose of HPM is to disrupt the electronics of different types of equipment

Speaking to Armada, chief executive officer of California-based Epirus, Leigh Madden described how HPM “after years of failed programmes has undergone a resurgence in recent years “.

“We are starting to see the tides of conversation shift and commend leaders throughout DoD and members of Congress who recognise the criticality of integrating HPM capabilities into a range of programmes and mission sets,” Madden confirmed before warning how legacy solutions continued to be “plagued” by size, overheating and power constraints.

“Traditional vacuum tube-based HPM systems occupy the size of a shipping container; there are overheating issues due to the high-power requirements to generate an HPM waveform; and balancing precision and power,” Madden added before suggesting some legacy HPM solutions struggle to “precisely control their waveforms which risks damage to blue force assets and personnel in close proximity”.

Epirus’s solid-state, software-defined family of Leonidas HPM products is already demonstrating “precision strike and counter-swarm capabilities and proven effectiveness against Group 1-3 UAS”, Madden claimed.

“I see this renewed interest in HPM continuing to grow in the next five years and beyond. I believe that software will come to define the future of military overmatch, if it hasn’t already. The HPM market will continue to expand, that’s for sure. But I have no doubt that solid-state, software-defined HPM systems will emerge as game-changers for countering hostile UAS and other electronic threats that continue to take centre stage in ongoing conflicts across the globe.”

Epirus currently offers customers Leonidas Next Generation (NG); Leonidas Pod (for UAVs); and Leonidas Mobile which in April 2022, successfully participated in the DoD’s HPM C-UAS Technology Demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground.

The Epirus airborne Leonidis Pod
The Epirus airborne Leonidis Pod is under contract with US Special Forces. (Epirus)

“A DoD readout of the exercise confirmed that Leonidas prosecuted targets at tactically relevant ranges, demonstrating 100 percent up-time throughout the duration of the exercise, even with ambient temperatures nearing 100 degrees centigrade. Frankly, the ball is now in DoD’s court – and we look forward to continuing to work with them to field our technology as soon as possible,” Madden asserted.

“We are continuing on our path of rapid system iteration to deliver smaller, smarter and safer Leonidas form factors to meet our customers’ evolving mission needs. Our latest ground-based Leonidas [NG] system showcased a three-times power increase from our original system, which we unveiled in 2021.”

Earlier in 2022, Epirus also unveiled the Leonidas Pod solution for which it is already under contract with the US Special Operations Command although no further details can be disclosed due to operational security reasons.

“Leonidas Mobile, the third member of our Leonidas family of systems, enables integration of our HPM array with ground combat vehicles to bring a fully mobile counter-electronics capability directly to the threat environment. With the inherent modularity of our technology, we can rapidly adapt our systems to develop new form factors that meet the mission needs of our customers. Needless to say, we’re moving fast and this corporate agility and rapid system iteration have been integral to our successes to date,” Madden added.

Applications include the integration of Leonidas Mobile on board General Dynamic Land Systems (GDLS) Stryker infantry fighting vehicles following a strategic agreement signed in October 2021 to explore the integration of our HPM array with their fleet of crewed and autonomous ground combat vehicles.

“In the past eight months, we’ve made incredible strides with our GDLS partners on Leonidas’ integration with Stryker to enable a fully mobile counter-electronics solution,” said Madden. Various elements of the integrated system and a scaled prototype of Stryker Leonidas known as ‘Drone Destroyer’ are due to be displayed at the AUSA exhibition in Washington, DC in October 2022, he confirmed.

Elsewhere, Epirus is also under contract with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to support the Warden Ranger programme which aims to develop software that enables more accurate prediction of electromagnetic waveform behaviours.

“Through use of our cutting-edge SmartPower technology platform, Epirus has ushered in a paradigm shift in HPM technology. We’ve turned the Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) factor for HPM on its head – Leonidas is small enough to fit in the back of a pickup truck and features a military grade trailer for maximum manoeuvrability. Leonidas’ software definition also enables a range of technology differentiators and allows operators to precisely control the system’s HPM waveforms to prosecute individual targets in tight crowded spaces or neutralise a swarm of drones across a wide terrain,” Madden added.

Elsewhere, companies including Raytheon and Lockheed Martin also continue to develop HPM payloads capable of being carried by UAVs to support a variety of mission sets including C-UAS. Examples include Lockheed Martin’s MORFIUS solution as well as Phaser by Raytheon which, according to company sources, has already conducted flight tests on both manned and unmanned platforms for ‘air-to-air C-UAS’.

According to Raytheon, HPM weapons can engage air-to-air; air-to-ground; and ground-to-air, providing low cost per engagement; speed of kill; ability to defeat swarms; and operable in all weather and visibility conditions.

Conclusion

Madden highlighted a variety of emerging use cases for HPM technology beyond C-UAS. “With our high-power microwave technology, we’ve demonstrated effectiveness against a range of electronic targets beyond UAS. Most notably, we’ve disabled an outboard ship motor, cementing the system’s broader counter-electronics capabilities and accelerated vessel-stop effects for enhanced maritime mission assurance. We are exploring a myriad of use cases for Epirus SmartPower to support our government and commercial customer bases,” he concluded.

In the immediate term, it appears hard kill solutions will continue to be the preferred countermeasure to take out UAS and other short range air defence threats. However, as threats evolve and DEW continues to mature, defence sources expect much more of a blend of soft and hard kill effects employed to disable threats, particularly at the tactical edge.

by Andrew White