A Stryker combat vehicle equipped with a 5kW laser and an
array of sensors spent several minutes scanning the horizon
for a wayward "enemy" drone.
On a television screen
in a nearby tent off Thompson Hill -- a range used during
the 10-day Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment here --
observers watched the black and white output of those
sensors on two flat-screen televisions on April 12, 2017. A
crosshair was centered on the screen. When what appeared to
be a drone entered the frame, the crosshairs locked on to it
and followed it.
This Mobile High-Energy Laser-equipped Stryker was evaluated, April 12, during the 2017 Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The MEHEL can shoot a drone out of the sky using a 5kW laser. (U.S. Army photo by C. Todd Lopez)
After a few attempts to destroy the drone with the laser,
the drone fell from the sky, crashing to the ground. Not a
bullet was fired, and no sounds were made by the system that
accomplished the kill -- an experimental project called the
Mobile High-Energy Laser, or MEHEL.
The MEHEL is just
one system the Army is looking at to deal with the growth of
inexpensive off-the-shelf unmanned aerial systems that are
being seen in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
2017 MFIX EXPERIMENTS
Lt. Col. Jeff Erts, who serves as the chief of experimentation
and wargaming with the Fires Battle Lab at the Fires Center of
Excellence here, said the MEHEL was just one of three drone-killing
systems under evaluation at the 2017 MFIX, which ran April 3-13.
Also included, he said, was a system called the Anti-UAV Defense
System and another branded "Hunter/Killer." There were also command
and control systems that provide a common air picture down to
platoon and company level, radar systems that can conduct
counter-artillery missions, but can also look into the sky, and an
unmanned aerial system that can haul supplies to Soldiers on the
front lines of combat.
That equipment and the personnel
tasked to evaluate it, came to Fort Sill to participate in the 2017
MFIX, which Erts said is a collaboration between the Fires Center of
Excellence and the Army Capabilities Integration Center. At MFIX, he
said, over 40 industry partners and government leads participated,
as well as Soldiers from around the United States.
MFIX, the Army was looking to accomplish several goals. At the top
of that list was finding better ways to pinpoint targets to put
fires on, Erts said.
"We'd like to know where our targets
are at," he said. "So the targets are out on the battlefield
somewhere. We'd like to know exactly where they are, so we can use
one of our precision munitions to hit it."
he said, involved a bit of doctrinal work. Erts said the Army is
interested in knowing if traditional fire supporting Soldiers are
capable of executing a counter-unmanned aircraft system mission
alongside their traditional artillery mission.
to see if their plate is too full, or if they can do everything at
once," he said. "[But] so far, it looks like they can do it."
Also on the agenda at the 2017 MFIX was a continued look at the
use of high-energy lasers, he said. The MEHEL made its first
appearance at MFIX last year, but then with a less-powerful laser.
"We are working with Space and Missile Defense Command, using
their MEHEL to engage various targets, to include low-flying UAS,"
he said. This is the first year, he said, that uniformed Soldiers
were actually tasked with using the system to take down actual
"They love the system and they are excited
about not only what they can do with it in the air, but what they
can do with it on the ground as well," he said.
said, at this year's MFIX the Army looked at new ways to deliver
supplies to the edge of the battlefield using unmanned aerial
systems, rather than convoys.
At the center of that effort
was a project called the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply System,
which was also on display at MFIX.
"Let's say a Soldier is
out of ammunition and they need a resupply in an emergency
situation," Erts said. "They could launch the UAS, and without
putting any Soldiers in harm's way, they could deliver that box of
ammunition to the front lines."
NOT STAR WARS
If the 2017 MFIX had a "star," it was probably the MEHEL. This
year, the Stryker configured with that system was marked "MEHEL
2.0," and it sported a 5kW laser versus last year's 2kW laser.
The MEHEL 2.0 includes on-board radar, a second optic, increased
laser power, and increased engagement range, Erts said. In addition
to doing a "hard kill," such as what was seen when the on-board
laser shot a drone out of the sky, the system can also do a "soft
kill." That means instead of using a laser to destroy a drone,
electronic warfare capabilities can be used to disable the
communications link between a drone and its ground control station.
Then, Erts said, "we can send artillery after the ground control
Also a possibility after a soft kill on a drone is
collecting that drone to gather intelligence information from it.
One thing the MEHEL does not do is make noise, or create any
Star Wars-like visual effects. When the laser fires, there's no
sound that comes from the vehicle. And observers can't actually see
the laser emanating from the "beam director" on top of the Stryker,
though if they were close enough to the target, they might see a
hole being burned into it from the laser's heat.
ENVISIONING LASER USE
Capt. Theo Kleinsorge, who came last month to Fort Sill to
participate in the MFIX, serves as the commander of Headquarters and
Headquarters Company, 2-12 Cavalry at Fort Hood, Texas. During the
MFIX, he replicated the role of an infantry company commander inside
the MEHEL 2.0-equipped Stryker.
His primary role was to help
determine if the MEHEL was something a forward-observer crew could
handle, or if the capability needed to be moved somewhere else, such
as into the air defense community. He said he was impressed with the
MEHEL system, and sees the usefulness of directed-energy weapons
elsewhere in the Army.
"It is absolutely a valuable system,"
Kleinsorge said, even beyond the ability to destroy a UAS. "Directed
energy will hopefully very quickly see itself useful in the realm of
breaching obstacle belts, in the realm of active defense, of not
just shooting down UASs, but the ability to destroy incoming
anti-tank missiles, mortars, field artillery rounds, across the
whole of what the counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar mission is
One benefit of the MEHEL system is that it
doesn't use ammunition to take down either a UAS or ground target.
Practically speaking, the only thing MEHEL needs is fuel. The
batteries required to fire the laser can be recharged from
generators, which are powered by the same fuel that runs the
"If the entire Army today adopted directed
energy and it was able to solve all of our engagement problems,
Class V ammunition would no longer exist, and Class III, our fuel,
would now be essentially our only logistical requirement for the
vehicle to be offensive," Kleinsorge said.
Kleinsorge said, his team took down about 50 actual targets using
the laser onboard the MEHEL. Using directed energy to kill a target
is something he said that none of the Soldiers involved had ever
done before. Now, he said, he's sold on the idea.
foxhole as a young captain, I say I am excited to see this in the
Army," Kleinsorge said. "We were skeptical at first, when we were
first briefed we'd be shooting down drones with lasers. And by the
end of it, it is absolutely more than feasible. We achieved a
success rate well beyond what we expected we'd have. And we are
excited to see this go to the next step of the experiment, shooting
beyond the horizon, and showing this technology can solve the
Spc. Brandon Sallaway, a fire support specialist and forward
observer from Fort Carson, Colorado, was one of the crew that
participated in the MFIX and who worked on the crew that piloted the
He said he found the system was easy to use, and easy
to learn as well.
"It uses stuff, controllers, that we're all
familiar with," he said. "It takes about half an hour ... to figure
out the system, and then you're good to go."
also the first uniformed Soldier to actually use the MEHEL to take
down a target. Outside the vehicle, plastered onto the side, are an
array of stickers that mark each kill the vehicle has made. He
pointed to the one that represents his own kill.
excited to be part of a historical event," he said. "And it's really
exciting ... to see the Army working on the next generation of tools
for us so that we can maintain our edge, the cutting edge. It's
mind-blowing stuff to think you are shooting a laser at something.
Sometimes it's hard to fathom."
UNMANNED AIRBORNE RESUPPLY
At MFIX, Soldiers aimed to do more than just blow up or disable
enemy drones. Also on the agenda was using friendly drones to
deliver supplies to Soldiers in need, so that manned convoys
wouldn't be needed.
"The problem we are trying to solve with
the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply System is how we conduct assured
resupply over the last tactical mile to the point of need," said
Capt. Dustin Dunbar, with the Combined Arms Support Command,
Sustainment Center of Excellence, Fort Lee, Virginia.
The JTARS used at MFIX was a 1/3 scale
model "trainer," that really served as an example of what could be
done, Dunbar said. The JTARS is meant to be a system, rather than
At MFIX, the JTARS team demonstrated the
capability the Army is after by using the trainer model. They had to
move a pair of individual first aid kits from one location to
another. They attached a few light-weight kits to a specially-built
drone to serve as the payload. Then the drone lifted up off the
ground and flew a preplanned route to a target destination, without
needing a Soldier to guide it with a controller.
demonstration model carries about 5 pounds. The expectation is that
eventually the JTARS could provide the capability to carry up to 600
pounds from a rear location to the front lines, where Soldiers might
need anything from food to ammunition.
"So if you can imagine
a Stryker is out on the battlefield and it goes down," Dunbar said.
"And that field maintenance team is working on it but they need a
part from the rear. Rather than taking an entire convoy and going
through convoy planning missions and stuff like that and getting on
the road, instead you are just loading one piece of equipment -- a
repair part -- within the JTARS and sending it point to point."
Critical to the JTARS concept is reaction time and assured
resupply, Dunbar said.
Right now, Dunbar said, the model they
have is capable of demonstrating what they want to do, though it
might not be the final product. The existence of what they do have
allows them to practice delivery of unmanned supplies and also
allows them to practice getting access to airspace -- something that
sustainment units would have to learn to do if they were going to
employ JTARS in a theater of operations.
sustainment unit within the Army doesn't have air assets," Dunbar
said. "Plus, they lack the personnel, the structure, and the
capability to plan, coordinate and deconflict airspace. So we came
out here with the Fires Battle Lab, essentially running the mission
command piece of how to conduct this and the best practices to take
back to hopefully make it to doctrine."
By U.S. Army C. Todd Lopez
Army News Service
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