WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is going to assess the possibility of putting a 50-kilowatt laser onto its short-range air defense, or SHORAD, objective solution in less than five years, according to the service’s fiscal 2019 budget justification documents released Feb. 12.
“As part of the objective solution, the 50 kilowatt laser will be assessed for possible transition from Science and Technology to an objective M-SHORAD program in FY2022,” the document reads.
Fiscal 2019 dollars — a total of $118 million combining both base and overseas contingency operations accounts — would be used to develop an interim solution and an objective manuever SHORAD, or M-SHORAD, family of systems. The objective solution will be capable of defeating fixed-wing, rotary-wing, and unmanned aircraft systems from small all the way up to Shadow-sized UAS as well as indirect fires threats.
It’s been roughly two years since U.S. Army Europe identified the SHORAD capability gap, acknowledging both the growing threat of small drones observed on the Ukrainian border by the Russian military and the realization that a key assumption held by the U.S. military for years that it will have air dominance against adversaries will undeniably be challenged.
That reality has even led the Army to identify air defense as one of its top six modernization priorities, with SHORAD being the top priority within that category.
The Army has taken critical steps to rapidly fill the capability gap in Europe with Avenger SHORAD units resident only in the National Guard, rapidly deploying them to the region attached to a rotational armored brigade combat team. The Avenger unit — one of the battalions out of the South Carolina National Guard’s 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command — is set to deploy this month.
At the same time, the service began to look at interim solutions to fill the gap with a plan to ultimately develop a new SHORAD system down the road.
And companies with possible solutions have come out of the woodwork even from Israel and South Korea. Several contractors participated in a demonstration at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, in September 2017 to inform the Army of existing capabilities that could work for SHORAD.
Boeing and General Dynamics Land Systems, which built a Stryker combat vehicle with an Avenger air defense system on its back for its SHORAD solution, said specifically it could integrate a laser.
The integration of a laser onto a SHORAD system in the time frame the Army lays out seems doable.
The Army has already successfully demonstrated a 5-kilowatt laser on a Stryker combat vehicle — the Mobile Expeditionary High-Energy Laser (MEHEL) — at the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) 2017.
At the same time, the Army has taken delivery of a 60 kilowatt-class laser from Lockheed Martin and will integrate it onto the a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) that will become the High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck.
But before the Army even thinks about lasers, it needs to choose an interim solution and begin work on a future program-of-record SHORAD system.
In FY19, the service will continue interim M-SHORAD capability development and integration of “the identified solution” into existing maneuver formation equipment. Funding includes building and testing 12 prototypes.
The plan is to ultimately field up to three M-SHORAD battalions. The interim solution is expected to reach an initial operational capability at the end of FY21.
The Army will also complete an analysis of alternatives for its objective SHORAD family of systems and begin concept development within the technology development phase of the program.
The service plans to award funds in the second quarter of FY20 for competitive development of objective M-SHORAD variants with a demonstration from multiple vendors during a technology maturation and risk reduction phase. The service will downselect in FY21.
The Army plans to reach the engineering and manufacturing development phase of its program of record in the second quarter of FY22.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.