Airborne Directed Energy Technology Maturing in the U.S.

 - October 2, 2014, 1:49 PM
Groundcrew check the fit of the Boeing Champ high-power microwave (HPM) payload on a B-52 bomber before a test flight of the directed-energy weapon. (Photo: AFRL)

The U.S. Air Force is ready to "weaponize" and quickly field directed-energy technology, following two recent successful high-power microwave (HPM) demonstration programs. Progress is also being made with solid-state high-energy lasers (HELs). Directed Energy was one of three “game-changing” technologies discussed by Maj Gen Tom Masiello, the commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), at the recent Air Force Association Conference in Washington, D.C. The others were hypersonics and autonomy.

Masiello showed video from flight-tests of the Boeing counter-electronics, high-powered microwave, advanced-missile project (Champ) on the Utah test range. He revealed that the Champ platform is a modified Boeing AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), launched from a B-52. It first flew in 2011, but Boeing revealed little detail of the project then. Flights evidently continued through Fiscal Year 2013, when the modified ALCM was successfully flown against two targets: an unhardened office building and a hardened chemical/biological weapons (CBW) facility. “The computers in the office building went blank, and an electrical generator was disabled on the first pass,” Masiello reported. The HPM weapon “would also have destroyed whatever batch of CBW was being manufactured in the [hardened] facility,” he added.

A single HPM weapon could provide low-collateral damage of multiple targets, Masiello noted. It is an alternative to the kinetic means of defeating an emitting/electronic target, he added. The next step will be to design, develop and test a multi-shot, multi-target HPM cruise missile. “Two independent teams have [validated] that the technology is ready to weaponize,” Masiello noted. This is an apparent reference to the separate contract awarded to Lockheed Martin to explore airborne HPM technology in the Non-Kinetic Counter-electronics Capability (NKCE) program.

The chemical-oxygen iodine laser (COIL) technology demonstrated by the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed has effectively been superseded by solid-state high-energy lasers, Masiello noted. He showed video of an HEL shooting down a UAV and destroying an aircraft radome. The AFRL’s tests of a 100kW-class ground-based HEL on the White Sands Missile Range will concentrate on steering and focusing the beam, and power and thermal management.

The next step, by 2022, will be to repackage a HEL in the 10kW-class into a pod that could be carried by an F-15 fighter. Such an airborne HEL could engage and defeat enemy aircraft or air-to-air missiles at moderate range, or provide precise and selectable (power), low-collateral attack of ground targets. Later in the next decade, Masiello predicted, a sixth-generation fighter could carry an efficient, lightweight HEL in the 100kW class with a conformal aperture beam.