Marines Consider Compact Laser Weapon
The service is evaluating the manportable weapon as an important counter measure against unmanned aerial vehicles.
This summer, the U.S. Marine Corps accepted delivery of five compact laser weapon systems, and is now considering many aspects of the weapon’s functionality. The service is looking for reliable, cost effective protection against the growing threat of unmanned aerial vehicles.
For ground-based applications, the weapon can be placed on a tripod and on top of its corresponding military container, which houses the electric power and cooling subsystems. The Marines will consider how to employ it at static locations as well as evaluating the possibility of vehicle-based use. The Boeing Company manufactured the compact laser weapon systems, known as CLWS, for the Marines under an initial production contract signed in 2017 and is offering the CLWS in 2-kW, 5-kW and 10-kW configurations.
The Marines will be looking closely at the benefits and costs of operating the different versions under various applications, explained Andrew Sobota, USMC project lead for the CLWS project.
“We'll start with getting some feedback from a reliability standpoint of the 2-kW system, get sustainment costs, maintenance and operation information, failure rates, if there are any, that kind of thing,” he said. Sobota, who was on hand at the Modern Day Marine event to explain the Marines’ plans for the initial work with the weapon system, said he took over as CLWS project lead in March and is serving as the liaison between the Marine Corps Systems Command, Program Executive Office Land Systems, contract management and Boeing.
The laser weapon is an urgent capability, so the Marines “want to get something that will protect our warfighters as quickly as possible,” said Sobota. “And it must be something we feel comfortable with, is effective and will do what we think it is supposed to do. And so we're trying to get it out there as quickly as possible to start getting that feedback.”
The feedback from the field will be compiled into reports to inform senior leadership about workings of the CLWS. The experience will help define the next generation of laser weapons or inform a counter UAS program of record, if the service takes that route, Sobota said.
Boeing touts CLWS as an affordable, modular, high-energy laser weapons system that can stand alone or be integrated onto a variety of platforms. CLWS is light enough to be carried by a couple of Marines, a company official said. And the system employs a commercial off-the-shelf laser, the same laser used in automobile manufacturing to cut out hoods. The weapon can be placed on an adjustable tripod for static ground applications or mounted onto a vehicle for mobile use, Ron Dauk, program manager for Boeing’s laser and electro-optical systems, explained to SIGNAL Magazine in a recent telephone interview.
“We're transitioning from developing single demonstration prototype units, to moving into delivering multiple systems to our customer,” Dauk stated. “So we're pretty excited about them having the CLWS system and getting a chance to really work with the warfighters and demonstrate [the weapon’s] capability in some challenging mission areas, specifically in the counter-unmanned aerial vehicle arena.”
Now that Boeing has delivered the five 2-kW CLWS units to the Marines, the company will spend the coming year assisting the service with the 5-kW laser. “We have just extended the contract through fiscal year 2019 to upgrade all five systems to a 5-kW laser energy weapon,” Sobota confirmed.
The upgraded laser will be higher power but the other components of CLWS—outside of the electrical power and cooling subsystems—remains the same. “The form factor, the beam director, the software, how it is integrated into the command and control system and the radar views, are all the same,” Sobota says.
Meanwhile, the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division is providing support to the Marines by initially fielding the 2-kW systems. Then, as part of the upgrade package with Boeing, the Marines will swap out the subsystems of those units in order to run the higher power version. “They're finalizing the design for the package of the five kilowatt laser with a beefed up electrical power system to be able to fit in a [military] container, with a minor upgrade to the chiller,” Sobota said. By the end of next September, the Marines will have the five 5-kW systems installed.
As for the possibility of the Marines using the 10-kW version of CLWS, Sobota said that will be a part of a larger consideration. “The Air Force Research Lab is doing a lot of analysis, as is the community as a whole in DOD,” he noted. “Ultimately, what we need to do is find out where that trade space is and the balance of costs of the 2-kW laser verses the others. Does it make more sense to buy 10 of these 2-kW units instead of one 10-kw unit? So with the technology as a whole, we're trying to balance what makes more sense.”
Additionally, Boeing said that it will be working in partnership with Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) to bringing the 10-kW configuration of CLWS to the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) 2019 this fall at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Dauk said. The SMDC’s High Energy Laser Division has several programs advancing laser weapons, including the Mobile High Energy Laser (MEHEL) program, which is looking at integrating lasers onto a Stryker vehicle. Boeing is one vendor among others bringing wares to the event for initial demonstration. Boeing also envisions the CLWS working on Joint Light Tactical Vehicle.
“We’ve demonstrated that the CLWS technologies are mature and that the ruggedized beam director can be used in multiple environments,” Dauk said. “We've tested and operated it in environments ranging from very dry desert conditions, all the way to European weather conditions. When working with SMDC and the MEHEL program, they took [CLWS] to a test event in Germany, and so we got to experience all the things that come with it, whether it's rain or mud.”
The company has developed a full training manual and classes to train military operators on control of the system. And Boeing designed the operation of CLWS with an eye toward other surveillance-type weapons, Dauk noted. “We get very positive feedback from warfighters about the ease of being able to train, operate and understand how to run a laser weapon system,” he said. “We're trying to make it very fundamental and common to other electro-optical systems that they may encounter that have been used for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. We try and emulate those kinds of conditions so it's very intuitive in the training and in the approach to operating CLWS.”