A possible future of Army laser weapons is undergoing testing on White Sands Missile Range.
The High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator, or HEL-MD, is a proof of concept weapon system designed to demonstrate how a laser system can be developed into a tactical, mobile platform that can be deployed and used in the field. Not an adopted Army weapon system, the HEL-MD is a test bed that is being used in various test environments and scenarios to evaluate the capabilities and determine what a system like it can do, and how it can be further developed. “This is an Army science and technology program, it is a demonstrator. It’s not a fieldable system yet, but it is truly a test article for the follow on to a potential program of record,” said Gary Hunter, Test Operations Lead from the US Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command. The testing is being conducted at WSMR’s High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility, or HELSTF, as well as at a few specialized locations on the range with HELSTF support.
At its core the HEL-MD is simply a high power laser, beam director system, and generator mounted onto a standard Army heavy expanded mobility tactical truck (HEMETT). Intended to primarily be a defensive weapon, the beam director is a fast tracking turret equipped with various cameras, targeting sensors, and fire control systems that allow the laser beam to be rapidly brought to bear on small, fast moving targets. “HEL-MD is a mobile demonstrator with high energy lasers. We’re counter rocket, counter mortar, counter artillery, and also counter unmanned aerial system. We’ve tested all that right here, with our last couple operational tests at HELSTF on WSMR,” Hunter said.
Currently, to defend against threats of this type, Soldiers rely on either air defense missiles systems, or fast tracking gun systems. Missiles, while extremely effective, are also rather expensive on a shot-per-shot basis, and gun systems fire hundreds of cannon rounds into the air to intercept a single target. In addition to the expense, in the history of air defense, the Soldier has relied on weapons that fired slugs or explosive warheads, making their use more complicated over populated areas, where the bullets and fragments eventually fall to earth. By comparison, lasers shoot only light, using only the fuel needed to power the laser for the duration of the shot, and keeping falling debris only to what’s left of the target.
One of the challenges of directed energy has always been power. Lasers of weapon class power to be used for missions like HEL-MD used to require large amounts of hazardous chemicals to react and generate a powerful beam. Today laser weapons are largely converting to more energy efficient and electric solid state lasers. Hidden within the shelter of the HEL-MD, the solid state laser system is powered by nothing more than diesel generators. This allows for the system to be powered using a very mobile and standard power source for the Army. “The Army has committed itself to solid state lasers. Now we are away from chemical lasers, so solid state lasers are the future,” Hunter said. Looking into the future, solid state lasers, like the HEL-MD , are not specific to diesel generators, and can be powered by any sufficiently powerful electrical source should a better method of power generation be developed.
A premiere DoD facility for the test of directed energy systems, HELSTF supports laser weapons testing of all kinds, from tactical scale lasers like the HEL-MD, to more specialized laser systems. “HELSTF has been out here since the early 80’s, so we bring experience and we bring all the assets of the range, which is the telemetry, the radar, and many many things out here that are already set up for the missile functions of the range that are now being used for HEL-MD,” said Mike Thurston, a test officer with HELSTF operated by the Survivability, Vulnerability and Assessment Directorate on WSMR. The experience of HELSTF was needed to support the HEL-MD’s interconnected systems of controls and supporting radars. Networking, while a vital part of the modern Army’s ability to fight and communicate, can also bring up unforeseen technical challenges. “You need to be able to have a reliable system to transmit data from the HEL-MD or any other laser system, to the other supporting devices such as a radar or GPS. So providing that interconnectivity is an issue sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with networks,” said Nahim Flores a test engineer with HELSTF.
Part of what makes WSMR such a perfect setting for the testing of high energy laser systems is the location. Unlike missile and gun systems, laser beams that don’t hit a specific target can project well beyond the intended range area, reaching into the sky and even space. While systems like the HEL-MD are equipped with safety systems to limit the firing to a safe window, the backstop the mountain provide allow for safer firings, especially when dealing with low altitude targets like the HEL-MD’s. “It’s a great location, we’ve got a nice mountain backstop that allows us to do a lot of different things that other test sites that belong to the Department of Defense can’t do, ” Thurston said.
Airspace is also a critical component to the HEL-MD program. As the threat of unmanned systems expands exponentially, defenses against them must be developed. Boasting unlimited DoD controlled airspace conducting counter UAS testing at WSMR allowed the program to safely test the system against unmanned aircraft without the challenges of getting clearance for such a test in FAA controlled airspace. “White Sands, HELSTF, and the Materiel Test Directorate, with Flight Safety, did a phenomenal job on our operational requirements,” Hunter said.
Part of HELSTF is built on an old cold war early warning radar test facility. While it may sound a little strange, it’s actually one of the facility’s strengths. Since the facility had to be functional, it’s built in a bunker designed to survive a nuclear attack, making it ideal for testing like that of the HEL-MD, where different targets have to be fired toward the system being tested while test officers control the test from the safety of the bunker.
As a demonstrator, the HEL-MD will be getting different upgrades, add-ons and improvements while it goes through the developmental process, possibly leading to a final system being developed as a formal program. It’s expected the system will continue to undergo testing at WSMR, working through these different component changes and evaluating its performance changes, and WSMR personnel will be ready to support the program as it evolves. “You have to be open to any requirements that the customer may have. Nothing is off the table unless you have exhausted all possible options,” Flores said.