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Laser-Armed Strykers: Revolutionizing Army Tactics with Drone-Killing Precision

Stryker mounted 50-kw HEL, High Energy Laser from Raytheon, has shown it can track and shoot down attacking mortars, drones, helicopter and low-flying fixed-wing targets.

Should mortars, attack drones, helicopters, artillery and RPGs all simultaneously approach Stryker units with a massive incoming attack, yet it is in an urban area where many civilians live … is there any kind of workable defense or countermeasure available for the attacked Army Stryker force?

The US Army is working on making the answer a clear and decisive “yes,” based on continued progress with its Directed Energy Short Range Air Defense weapon ( DE SHORAD). In testing a Stryker mounted 50-kw HEL, High Energy Laser from Raytheon, has shown it can track and shoot down attacking mortars, drones, helicopter and low-flying fixed-wing targets.

Raytheon’s HEL succeeded in destroying drone and mortar targets in a test at White Sands Missile Range earlier this year, a development which marked what could be called a breakthrough with laser defense. Raytheon developers explain that the HEL is built to track multiple targets at once with “automated queuing” using electro=optical/infrared sensor.

Laser weapons bring a host of previously unprecedented warfare advantages, as they can travel quietly at the speed of light as a “scalable” weapon able to disable, damage or fully destroy and incinerate enemy targets. While of course lasers are low cost and much less expensive than advanced interceptor missiles such as a vehicle-fired HELLFIRE and they bring optical advantages as well given that they can light up, find or identify targets.

The introduction of laser weapons, which has required elaborate and ongoing Raytheon-Army collaborative efforts to refine emerging technologies, relies upon the successful integration of sources of mobile power and thermal management. In order to work effectively, repeatedly and with precision, laser weapons need power density in a small enough form factor to travel on a Stryker and continuously track and destroy targets.

This also requires thermal management, as laser weapons of course generate massive amounts of heat which could destabilize a vehicle’s electronic systems and even cause malfunctions. The successful integration of the laser suggests that indeed Raytheon and the Army appear to be achieving breakthroughs.

Tactically and conceptually in terms of operational applications of laser weapons, DE SHORAD does seem to represent a significant jump forward, given the difficulty of engineering lasers with the requisite mobility and temperature management.

Lasers have been operational on Navy ships for many years now, and the Navy is now arming its fleet of destroyers with a new generation of laser weapons, however a ship naturally affords much more space and electrical power with which to integrate and fire laser weapons. Engineering a laser to build into a moving infantry vehicle such as a Stryker requires a new level of size, heat and electronic management.

As is often the case, emerging applications of weapons often generate new tactical thinking and concepts of operation, changing maneuver formations. Armored vehicle operations, and various new Combined Arms Maneuver techniques. For instance, should a Stryker unit need to defend against incoming drone missile attacks, yet the warfighting is taking place over an urban environment, a kinetic explosion caused by a missile would likely cause explosive material and fragmentation dangerous to civilians.

Using lasers, therefore, might enable the opportunity for a Stryker unit to defend itself without causing damage to civilians or unwanted collateral damage. In a heavily populated urban area, for instance, firing a missile interceptor might cause a larger, more dangerous explosion; firing a laser which slowly burns a hole through the metal of an enemy air target can decrease fragmentation and tailor the timing of when an enemy asset is ultimately disabled. Fire control and precision targeting are extremely key for this kind of effort to work, and advanced, potentially AI-enabled computer algorithms likely improve targeting speed and precision.

Laser weapons not only introduce helpful new tactics for urban or populated areas but can also enable units to disperse and network more fully, attack at the speed of light, potentially intercept multiple targets at once and attack in a quieter, “stealthier” mode without making sounds.

The fast-emerging DE SHORAD effort is an extension of the Armys now-operational SHORAD program wherein Stryer vehicles are armed with an ability to fire kinetic interceptors at air threats such as HELLFIRE missiles. In development for many years now, the Army has been progressing with determined efforts to restore short-range-air-defense to its maneuvering ground fleet.

One senior Army weapons developer told Warrior years ago that the concern has been that the service’s Cold War era focus on armored vehicle air defense had “atrophied” and needed to be resurrected. The SHORAD effort, which continues to be both operational and successful, was a key first step toward restoring this capability and opening the aperture to newer weapons and tactics such as those created by the Army laser.