An illustration of the Ground-Based Air Defense Direct Energy On-the-Move laser, under development by the Office of Naval Research. Courtesy of ONR ()
Naval researchers are working to provide Marines a vehicle-mounted laser that can zap unmanned aerial vehicles out of the sky.
The program, lead by the Office of Naval Research, aims to protect ground units by bringing the technology already proven aboard Navy ships to Marine Corps Humvees and Joint Light Tactical Vehicles.
“The Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move Program, commonly referred to as GBAD, aims to provide an affordable alternative to traditional firepower to keep enemy unmanned aerial vehicles from tracking and targeting Marines on the ground,” according to an ONR press release.
There are many benefits to using directed energy weapons over conventional munitions, said Lee Mastroianni, the program manager for Force Protection in ONR’s Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare and Combating Terrorism Department. Chief among those is cost.
“The cost per shot, using electricity, is pennies. Shooting .50-caliber is about three dollars per round and it takes 1,000 or more to shoot down a UAV. Missiles can get pretty expensive. A UAV can cost in the thousands of dollars range, so that becomes a pretty expensive trade off,” he said.
GBAD is made up of an array of three vehicles — one to identify and track a UAV with radar, another for command and control, and a third to zap threats with the laser. Eventually, the radar function will likely be filled by the Marine Corps’ Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar system, a vehicle-towed radar for expeditionary operations.
The falling cost of UAVs, their wider proliferation and the focus of U.S. adversaries like Iran and North Korea on bolstering their own unmanned programs has military leaders searching for ways to head off the rising threat. But while the current focus of ONR’s GBAD program is indeed UAVs, the same system could be used to destroy ground targets, too.
“You know Marines. You give them a laser and they are probably going to find all kinds of things they want to shoot at,” Mastroianni said. “You don’t have to point it up. You can point it down to go after IEDs, anything where this weapon’s effect would be of value to the war fighter.”
Even enemy artillery and mortars could be a “valid target set” for the laser, he said. Because that is not the focus of ONR’s efforts, however, a final solution to manually aim the system at ground targets has not been developed. It would likely use the same cameras currently used by radar and computers to direct the laser.
The greatest technical challenge in developing the system is miniaturizing energy and cooling systems necessary to run the laser, which is only the size of a suitcase.
Operational challenges including ruggedizing the laser so it can endure the shock of an off-road environment and doesn’t “break on the first pothole,” Mastroianni said. Also, keeping the laser clean and functional in an environment with dust, mud, sea mist or high humidity presents challenges.
The program is moving along at a fast clip with plans to have a final working weapon system by the end of 2017. It will then fall to procurement officials to purchase and field a system. Late this winter, the entire system will fire on test targets using a 10 kilowatt laser. That will be upgraded to a 30 kilowatt laser for testing in 2016, which will allow Marines to engage targets at greater distances and disable them faster.