Laser, High-Powered Microwave, and Hypersonic Weapons On Horizon
by U.S. Army Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood
December 7, 2019
It’s 2023, and a battery in a strategic fires battalion, part of the U.S. Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force, is newly equipped with an unprecedented asset ... the Army’s first hypersonic weapon.
This land-based, truck-launched system is armed with hypersonic missiles that can travel well over 3,800 miles per hour. They can reach the top of the Earth’s atmosphere and remain just beyond the range of air and missile defense systems until they are ready to strike, and by then it’s too late to react. Extremely accurate, ultrafast, maneuverable and survivable, hypersonics can strike anywhere in the world within minutes. For the battery, the task force and the U.S. Army, they provide a critical strategic weapon and a powerful deterrent against adversary capabilities.
The U.S. Army is fast-tracking directed-energy systems, awarding a contract to accelerate its first combat-capable laser system, the Multi-Mission High Energy Laser (MMHEL) prototype. Here, a Stryker Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser (MEHEL), an earlier technology that provided risk reduction for the MMHEL, participates in the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment on December 10, 2014 at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. (U.S. Army photo by Monica K. Guthrie, Fort Sill Public Affairs)
Around since the early 2000s, hypersonic technology itself is not new, yet it is newly important. Today the United States is battling to outpace similar efforts from our adversaries.
To address those threats, the Army is accelerating the fielding of its own long-range hypersonic weapon to deliver, by fiscal year 2023, an experimental prototype with residual combat capability—meaning Soldiers have it and can use it in combat if needed—to a unit of action. In this case, the unit is a battery in a strategic fires battalion.
The Army is using the same approach—accelerating a prototype to provide residual combat capability—with directed energy, another leap-ahead technology. The Army’s first meaningful laser weapon system for tactical use will be fielded by fiscal year 2022. These 50-kilowatt (kW)-class lasers, heading to a platoon of Strykers, will improve Soldiers’ defense against rocket, artillery and mortar threats, and an increasing number of unmanned aerial systems.
The Army’s path for fast-tracking both hypersonics and directed-energy systems began in late 2018, when it renamed and refocused the efforts of the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO). As part of the overall Army modernization strategy, Army leaders asked RCCTO to lead the hypersonic and directed-energy efforts as they transition from the science and technology (S&T) community into the hands of operational units.
Immediately, RCCTO moved out with the two missions and in turn set a new course of delivering experimental prototypes with residual combat capability.
Developing hypersonic weapons for a national mission set requires constant cross-service coordination. Collaborating across services, agencies and with the Office of the Secretary of Defense through a joint service memorandum of agreement on design, development, testing and production, the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) are all accelerating initiatives to field hypersonic weapon systems using a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB). The Navy leads design of the C-HGB, while the Army will lead production and build a commercial industrial base. This cooperation enables the services to leverage one another’s technologies as much as possible, while tailoring them to meet specific design and requirements for air, land and sea.
RCCTO is charged with one mission when it comes to hypersonics: Field a prototype long-range hypersonic weapon to the strategic fires battalion by fiscal year 2023. This includes hypersonic missiles with the C-HGB, existing trucks and modified trailers with new launchers, and an existing Army command-and-control system. To do this, RCCTO’s Army Hypersonic Project Office issued contract awards in August, following program approval in March, to produce key hardware items for the long-range hypersonic weapon.
Starting in 2020, the Army will participate in a series of joint tests with the Navy, Air Force and MDA, focusing on range, environmental extremes and contested environments. The tests will be complemented by training events so Soldiers can learn to employ the new technology.
The Army’s directed-energy efforts, which include both lasers and high-powered microwaves, are moving forward in a similar rapid prototyping effort. In April, the secretary of the Army signed a memo designating RCCTO responsible for oversight and execution of all Army directed-energy efforts. Shortly thereafter, Army leadership approved a new directed-energy strategy for RCCTO, developed in partnership with the U.S. Army Futures Command.
Quickly, RCCTO began accelerating the fielding of the 50kW-class high-energy laser for a platoon of Stryker vehicles by fiscal year 2022. High-energy lasers use the light generated by the laser to “heat up” a threat and neutralize it. This prototype laser weapon at the platoon level is part of the Army’s Maneuver Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) in support of a brigade combat team.
RCCTO announced its contract award for the 50kW-class effort in July. After a technology maturation phase, the Army will execute a high-energy laser demonstration against a number of M-SHORAD threats. After evaluating the results, the Army plans to make a final selection and award for three additional Stryker prototypes.
Also in directed energy, as part of a joint service effort, RCCTO will deliver an experimental prototype high-power microwave (HPM) weapon with residual combat capability by fiscal year 2024. The HPM capability differs from high-energy lasers as it uses radio frequency to affect the electronics of a threat, making it inoperable or negating it in some way. HPM weapons can disrupt communications to, for example, throw off a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles.
NAVIGATING CULTURE CHANGE
Delivering first-of-a-kind capabilities like hypersonics and directed energy to a unit of action years ahead of schedule is no simple task. But it also doesn’t have to be overly complicated. That’s where RCCTO comes in. Answering to a board of directors made up of Army leadership and equipped with a unique charter that includes in-house contracting, RCCTO is built for speed. It’s now using that speed to move out on rapid prototyping and fielding of strategically important capabilities that address operational needs of high risk and opportunity.
To do this, RCCTO must cross experimental prototypes over what’s often called the “valley of death,” where a gap exists between transitioning S&T efforts to a formal acquisition program of record. As it navigates this gap, our team has to understand that in prototyping hypersonics and directed energy, we are not delivering the perfect solution. Instead, the goal is to deliver a prototype that Soldiers can use and that the Army can choose to move forward with, or choose to move in a different direction.
Whatever path the Army chooses, it has not invested years into a “too-large-to-fail” project. And although they are prototypes, once completed the equipment has residual combat capability, is deemed safe, operational and effective, and is placed into the hands of Soldiers, who will continue to refine, improve and train with the capability.
Perhaps most unique about this new path is that the team involved from the beginning of the capability’s concept moves with it. Both the hypersonics and directed-energy teams came from the S&T community to RCCTO. With them came the knowledge, background and familiarity that comes only from years of working on these capabilities. With the addition of acquisition experts, RCCTO established a complete team for successful execution. Much like the commercial world, these teams of experts will aggregate or de-aggregate based on what phase the mission is in.
Yet this concept doesn’t work just one way. It also, from the very beginning of a project entering RCCTO, incorporates the program-of-record side of the Army acquisition team. When hypersonics and directed energy eventually transition out of RCCTO prototype phase and into a program executive office (PEO) and a program of record, the team will change once again. And, as before, the knowledge, background and familiarity will move with them.
For example, once the long-range hypersonic weapon is fielded, the prototyping effort will cease and RCCTO will hand the program over to the program of record team, in this case the PEO for Missiles and Space. They will then build on the foundation of the prototype as they develop the hypersonics program of record. However, PEO Missiles and Space will not be new to the project at the point of transition: They’ve had a group embedded with RCCTO from day one. They know what is coming in order to plan for testing, funding, contracting and other crucial elements years in advance.
In other words, RCCTO is using its unique authorities and focus to fuse what the S&T community can do with what the program-of-record community can do. Of course, not every S&T idea will become a program of record. So when the prototyping effort is finished, RCCTO will take the results to Army leadership to make one of three decisions: stop all efforts; go back to S&T for more development; or move it out of prototyping into a program of record. With this model in place, all three options—failing fast, more research, or production—are acceptable outcomes.
As RCCTO expedites hypersonics and directed energy, we also continue to execute previously assigned projects and to scout emerging technologies that may not yet be on the Army’s radar.
Past projects, in areas including electronic warfare, sensor-to-shooter communications, and position, navigation and timing, are all either concluding or transitioning to the respective programs of record. RCCTO’s work in prototyping and advancing those capabilities will lay the foundation for future efforts.
Take, for example, in electronic warfare: RCCTO partnered with the Project Manager for Electronic Warfare and Cyber (PM EW&C) within the PEO for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors to deliver integrated electronic warfare systems for brigade and below, and new “phase two” systems were delivered this summer. Those capabilities, fielded to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and 173rd Airborne Brigade, include improved performance, simplified interfaces, extended ranges and enhanced tactical mobility and survivability. After that phase two fielding, the effort is transitioning into PM EW&C with two years’ worth of Soldier training, feedback and experience.
Our Computer and Electronic Security Dominance team, which stemmed from one of RCCTO’s original focus areas in cyber, continues to work with other Army cyber programs, focusing on applying innovative technology to address pressing capability gaps such as cyber-enabled counter-unmanned aerial systems. RCCTO’s Advanced Concepts and Experimentation (ACE) Project Office, formerly known as the Emerging Technologies Office, continues to scout and quickly transition emerging, disruptive technologies such as short-range radars for active protection systems, wireless for combat platforms, and applying machine learning to electronic warfare and directed energy.
ACE, which holds quarterly “Shark Tank”-type innovation days with industry, serves as a quick reaction office for research and analysis, prototyping, experimentation and assessment of emerging technologies. It also serves as a conduit to nationwide experts in academia, industry, startups and other services to ensure that RCCTO is connected with those who know what technology is on the cusp of a breakthrough.
The Army’s No. 1 priority is readiness, followed by modernization. RCCTO enables these priorities by moving needed capabilities from the S&T community to an experimental prototype with residual combat capability to a unit of action.
This is a big undertaking and one that can’t be done alone. Critical to our success will be the resilient partnerships we are forming across the Army, DOD, industry and academia to improve the speed of technology and capability development and enable the Army’s implementation of the National Defense Strategy. As we engage in a great power competition with near-peer competitors, these critical technologies must be harnessed, and harnessed in an acceptable timeframe, so our Soldiers can defeat any adversary on the battlefield.
LT. GEN. L. NEIL THURGOOD is the director of Hypersonics, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition, which includes leading RCCTO. He holds a doctorate in strategic planning and organizational leadership from the University of Sarasota; an M.S. in systems acquisition management from the Naval Postgraduate School; an M.S. in strategic studies from the Air University, Air War College; and a B.S. in business from the University of Utah.
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