How has the US military employed laser technology in defensive weapons?

The US military system can fire lasers with a power of up to 50 kilowatts.

The US military’s laser defense system (Image: Popular Mechanics)

The US Army is collaborating with Kord Technologies to create a new laser-based weapon as part of an ongoing push to upgrade combat weaponry.

The Stryker’s newly developed Direct Energy Directed Short-Range Air Defense System (DE M-SHORAD) employs a 50 kilowatt laser. DE M-SHORAD is meant to eliminate threats such as drones and mortars without using guns or heavy weapons. Kord Technologies is developing four prototypes of the laser weapon system, which will be installed on an armoured Stryker vehicle and deployed in September 2022.

Wesley Freiwald, vice president of missile defence at KBR, Kord Technologies’ parent firm, describes how this one-of-a-kind defence system works and why it is a significant asset to the US military.

What precisely is the DE M-SHORAD Weapon System?

The lasers employed in the military will not be like the lasers we are familiar with. The power level of lasers manufactured and used in other sectors is only about 0.005 watts. Lasers appear to be harmless at low power levels. The DE M-SHORAD weapon system is substantially more powerful, with lasers capable of producing up to 50 kilowatts. They are capable of destroying drones and mortars, thereby supporting troops in protecting the region.

More specifically, the DE M-SHORAD weapon system employs a solid-state laser to exploit the periodic table elements lanthanum (57) to lutetium (71) — a.k.a. rare earth elements. These elements are extremely excitable, which means they can produce a large amount of electricity or energy without the use of chemicals or gas and this is beneficial to the military for a variety of reasons.

The advantages of the DE M-SHORAD armament system

Solid-state lasers, according to Freiwald, can significantly reduce the cost per target kill, a criterion widely used to assess the efficacy of fortifications. “Transporting heavy lead and bombs in warfare requires a large number of personnel and is quite expensive,” he explained. All you really need for solid-state lasers is a huge power source.”

Another advantage of deploying DE M-SHORAD systems is that they do not leave unexploded shrapnel on the battlefield, resulting in fewer casualties.

While certain risks remain, the DE M-SHORAD system is generally easier to use, less expensive, and safer than classic kinetic ballistic weapons. “You simply turn it on and off,” Freiwald explained. “However, launching a conventional missile requires a number of stages.” If it hits, that’s fantastic.” That’s great, but if you don’t hit, you’ll have to make plans to launch another rocket.”

Close-up of the US military’s DE M-SHORAD defense system (Image: Popular Mechanics)

The first four prototypes

Several businesses are collaborating to produce each component of the DE M-SHORAD system, from the Stryker vehicle to the laser beams and laser strips, but Kord and KBR remain the project’s primary developers. “You need to incorporate all of those aspects, and KBR has a long history in this area,” Freiwald explains. The business is now developing four prototypes, which will be available in September.”

“If they are successful, the US military is considering purchasing more of them for use in dynamics research programmes,” Freiwald noted.

When soldiers begin utilising this laser system in combat, KBR will study and learn from the first four prototypes in order to optimise them.

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