The U.S. military is tinkering with high-energy lasers in Iraq as part of a broader effort to refine directed-energy weapons and more effectively counter drones, according to the leader of Central Command.

The Army earlier this year sent several laser weapons mounted to Stryker combat vehicles to the Middle East. It was unclear at the time exactly where the prototypes were stationed, but the move was in advancement of the service’s short-range air defense goals.

Gen. Michael Kurilla, the CENTCOM boss, on March 21 told Congress he has “three 50-kilowatt lasers that are Stryker-based” inside Iraq “right now.” Experiments are underway, he added, to identify their best application. He did not disclose preliminary results. A request made to the command for additional information was not immediately answered.

High-energy lasers and related high-power microwave weapons are capable of downing incoming threats in unorthodox ways and at a fraction of the cost of traditional munitions. Lasers can fire at the speed of light and burn holes through material, but are susceptible to weather conditions and particles in the air, such as sand. Microwaves can fry electronics en masse, but their efficacy is stunted at greater distances.

Both are considered critical elements of layered defense, or having multiple countermeasures ready to thwart different threats in different situations.

“Directed energy is not the panacea,” Kurilla said at the House Armed Services Committee hearing. “What I tell all the services: Give me systems, we will experiment with them, and we will tell you if it works in a real, live environment.”

The Army is increasingly concerned with overhead threats, including unmanned aerial vehicles that can spy on troops, augment targeting and deliver explosives. A drone attack in late January killed three Americans at Tower 22 in Jordan, near the Syrian border.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, urged Kurilla during the committee hearing to take advantage of directed energy wherever he can. At least 31 directed-energy initiatives are underway across the military, according to a National Defense Industrial Association study.

“I know it’s not perfected yet, but it has great capabilities against drones and things like that currently,” Lamborn said. “I’d hate to see a repeat of Tower 22, for instance.”

Colin Demarest was a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covered military networks, cyber and IT. Colin had previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.

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