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Lockheed Martin demos 50kW anti-aircraft frickin' laser beam

Looks like a reboot of SWIV

Updated Lockheed Martin this week showed that a 50kW laser being developed for air defense scenarios can be turned on to create a coherent beam, a milestone the defense giant calls "first light."

The 50kW-class Directed Energy Interceptor for Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense System, referred to as DEIMOS among those who'd rather not repeat that entire description every time the subject arises, is expected to be integrated, eventually, into a Stryker combat vehicle.

DEIMOS is intended for M-SHORAD, which for those not keeping up on military acronyms is a reference to the US Army's maneuver-short range air defense mission. Think armored vehicles moving about and firing laser beams at threats in the sky.

Lockheed Martin DEIMOS graphic

Tanks very much ... How Lockheed Martin imagines its laser-firing DEIMOS might look (Click to enlarge)

Last February, Lockeed Martin and the US Office of Naval Research showed that this might be a feasible scenario when a fixed laser battery took out a surrogate cruise missile – really, it was a plane acting the part of a cruise missile.

Rick Cordaro, VP of Lockheed Martin Advanced Product Solutions, described DEIMOS as another important way in which Lockheed Martin can provide the US Army with layered air defense capabilities.

"DEIMOS has been tailored from our prior laser weapon successes to affordably meet the Army's larger modernization strategy for air and missile defense and to improve mission success with 21st Century Security solutions," he said.

The US Army reportedly had hoped to move the program from the lab into the field by this year, but it looks like that will have to wait until 2025 or so.

According to a July 23, 2020 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report [PDF], SHORAD units were historically embedded within army units to defend against planes and helicopters, but were shifted to the Air Force two decades ago.

Since 2005, however, the proliferation of drones and precision missile and artillery systems in conflict zones has revived concerns about troop vulnerability, and has prompted the Army to revisit its SHORAD capabilities. Anyone who has seen video from the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine of soldiers stalked by drones and loitering munitions should recognize why more sophisticated tactical air defense options are being explored.

The Defense Department's 2022 National Defense Strategy [PDF] and the House Armed Services Committee’s bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force Report have both identified directed energy weapons as a national security interest, a November 14, 2022 CRS report [PDF] explains.

Consequently, quite a bit of cash has been sought for developing directed energy weapons – in FY2023, the Pentagon asked for at least $669 million for unclassified directed energy weapon development and at last $345 million for unclassified directed energy weapon procurement.

One rationale for such spending is that directed energy weapons – we're talking high-energy lasers (HELs) and high-powered microwave (HPM) systems but not more speculative projects involving particle beams – could cost less to fire than kinetic weapons and wouldn't require reloading.

During his brief time as Prime Minister of Israel, Naftali Bennett last year claimed that the nation's Iron Beam laser interception system successfully shot down a missile, at a cost of $3.50 per shot. That's significantly less expensive than the PAC-3 missiles used in the Patriot air defense system, which cost $4 million a piece.

Cost-per-shot figures based on sustained deployment in a war zone will have to wait until these weapons mature and it's clear just how many tons of batteries or other fuel sources have to be hauled about to make them functional for some specified period of time, not to mention staffing and maintenance.

The 2022 CRS report noted that while there's no consensus on the power levels required to take out specific targets, analysts have estimated that a 100kW laser would be required to neutralize drones, small boats, artillery, and mortars while it would take about 300kW to disable a cruise missile and about 1MW to destroy ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons.

Last September, Lockheed Martin announced it can provide a 300kW laser for laboratory and field testing.

Lockheed Martin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. ®

Updated to add

Reps for Lockheed Martin have been in touch to answer some of our questions. Below you can find their responses to our queries.

The Register: Can you clarify what first light means? Is that simply establishing that a 50kW laser beam has been created in the lab?

LM: Lockheed Martin achieved first light from the Directed Energy Interceptor for Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense System (DEIMOS) system, which verifies that the laser’s optical performance parameters align with the system design parameters. First light measures the expected beam quality of the system while testing end-to-end performance of our game-changing, low-cost Spectral Beam Combination (SBC) architecture. The key benefit of the company’s SBC is that power can be scaled while retaining the excellent beam quality of the individual fiber lasers. The first light lab demo occurred on January 13 at Lockheed Martin Bothell facility.

The Register: When DEIMOS is delivered for field deployment in 2025 or thereabout, will it also be 50kW or is the intent to deliver something more powerful?

LM: DEIMOS system will be deployed at the 50 kW-class. It will be a ruggedized, tactical laser weapon system that can be integrated into the Stryker combat vehicle to deliver robust directed energy capability to the U.S. Army’s challenging maneuver-short range air defense (M-SHORAD) mission.

The Register: When Lockheed Martin demoed its laser with the Naval Research Office last year, what was the kW rating of that laser?

LM: In February 2022, in partnership with the Office of Naval Research, we demonstrated our 100 kW-class Layered Laser Defense (LLD) weapon system by defeating two surrogate cruise missiles at tactically relevant ranges. This was the first time an electric laser weapon was able to defeat these types of targets.

The Register: Do you have a projected cost per beam discharge? And is there a target time goal for the period between beam contact and target destruction?

LM: Our cost per engagement is commensurate with the energy source that Lockheed Martin utilizes to fuel the engagement.

Directed Energy has to be affordable in order to earn its way on the battlefield. Laser weapons will shift the cost calculus, providing a lower cost per engagement against inexpensive, proliferated threats. Moreover, affordability has to look across the entire lifecycle of the system - Acquisition, Sustainment, and Training.

The Register: Have directed energy weapons been tested to work through obstructions like clouds and smoke?

LM: We use lasers to defeat threats like drones, rockets and missiles. The laser then delivers energy directly to the target causing the desired damage effect. The same type of software used in fighter jet targeting systems identifies and tracks targets. The technology ensures that the laser hits the target even after traveling through atmospheric conditions that can bend light like rain and cloud cover.

Lockheed Martin’s fiber laser technology has matured to the point that it can deliver power levels sufficient to support key military missions. Our lasers works like a prism in reverse focusing many beams of light into one powerful laser beam. Practical and cost-effective directed energy systems can be integrated on existing land, sea and air platforms right now. Once you have a laser weapon system installed, the cost per shot is extremely low; and as long as you have power, you have defense when you need it. Lasers are fast, flexible and precise—minimizing collateral damage gets a lot easier when you can focus your beam on a specific spot on the target.

The successful demonstration of LLD defeating two surrogate cruise missiles [showed that] Lockheed Martin’s laser weapon system can travel through atmospheric conditions. LLD was designed with several subsystems including a beam control system. The LLD beam control system assures laser beam effectiveness to destroy the target. It does so by conditioning and refining the laser beam from the laser source and utilizing target tracking information from the radar, and other sensors, to point the laser beam with enough precision to destroy the target. The faster and more agile the target, the more difficult it is to achieve precise beam control.

The beam control system also assures that LLD can perform against atmospheric challenges by measuring atmospheric distortion and correcting the outgoing laser beam to overcome that distortion, all within a fraction of a second. This ensures that the laser beam is effective and lethal.

LLD has been demonstrated in multiple geographic locations and varied atmospheric environments.

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