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Drone killer.

A Stryker combat vehicle equipped with a 5kW laser and an array of sensors spent several minutes scanning the horizon for a wayward "enemy" drone at Fort Sill, Ok., last April.

In a nearby tent off Thompson Hill--a range used during the 10-day Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) here--observers watched the black and white output of the Stryker's sensors on two flat-screen televisions. A crosshair was centered on the screen. When what appeared to be a drone entered the frame, the crosshairs locked on to it and followed it.

After a few attempts to destroy the drone with the laser, the drone fell from the sky, crashing to the ground. Not a bullet was fired, and no sounds were made by the system--an experimental project called the Mobile High-Energy Laser, or MEHEL.

Lt. Col. Jeff Erts, who serves as the chief of experimentation and wargaming with the Fires Battle Lab at the Fires Center of Excellence, said the MEHEL was just one of three drone-killing systems under evaluation at the 2017 MFIX. At this MFIX, the top of the list was finding better ways to pinpoint targets to put fires on, Erts said.

Another priority involved a bit of doctrinal work. Erts said the Army is interested in knowing if traditional fire supporting Soldiers are capable of executing a counter-unmanned aircraft system mission alongside their traditional artillery mission. "We're going to see if their plate is too full, or if they can do everything at once," he said. "[But] so far, it looks like they can do it."

Also on the agenda at the 2017 MFIX was a continued look at the use of high-energy lasers, he said. The MEHEL made its first appearance at MFIX last year with a less-powerful laser and this is the first year uniformed Soldiers were actually tasked with using the system to take down actual aerial targets.

Capt. Theo Kleinsorge, who came last month to Fort Sill to participate in the MFIX, serves as the commander of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2-12 Cavalry at Fort Hood, Tx. During the MFIX, he replicated the role of an infantry company commander inside the MEHEL 2.0-equipped Stryker.

His primary role was to help determine if the MEHEL was something a forward-observer crew could handle, or if the capability needed to be moved somewhere else, such as into the air defense community. He said he was impressed with the MEHEL system and sees the usefulness of directed-energy weapons elsewhere in the Army.

"It is absolutely a valuable system," Kleinsorge said, even beyond the ability to destroy a UAS. "Directed energy will hopefully very quickly see itself useful in the realm of breaching obstacle belts, in the realm of active defense, of not just shooting down UAS's, but the ability to destroy incoming anti-tank missiles, mortars, field artillery rounds, across the whole of what the counter-rocket, artillery and mortar mission is currently."

One benefit of the MEHEL system is it doesn't use ammunition to take down either a UAS or ground target. Practically speaking, the only thing MEHEL needs is fuel. The batteries required to fire the laser can be recharged from generators powered by the same fuel used for the Stryker.

"If the entire Army today adopted directed energy and it was able to solve all of our engagement problems, Class V ammunition would no longer exist, and Class III, our fuel, would now be essentially our only logistical requirement for the vehicle to be offensive," Kleinsorge said.

At MFIX, Kleinsorge said, his team took down about 50 actual targets using the laser onboard the MEHEL. Using directed energy to kill a target is something he said none of the Soldiers involved had ever done before. Now, he said, he's sold on the idea.

"From my foxhole as a young captain, I say I am excited to see this in the Army," Kleinsorge said. "We were skeptical at first, when we were first briefed we'd be shooting down drones with lasers. And by the end of it, it is absolutely more than feasible. We achieved a success rate well beyond what we expected we'd have. And we are excited to see this go to the next step of the experiment, shooting beyond the horizon and showing this technology can solve the problem."

Spc. Brandon Sallaway, a fire support specialist and forward observer from Fort Carson, Co., was one of the crew participating in the MFIX and who worked on the crew with the MEHEL. "It uses stuff, controllers we're all familiar with," he said. "It takes about half an hour ... to figure out the system and then you're good to go."

Sallaway was also the first uniformed Soldier to actually use the MEHEL to take down a target. Outside the vehicle, plastered onto the side, an array of stickers mark each kill the vehicle has made. Sallaway, pointing to the one representing his own kill, said, "I'm really excited to be part of a historical event." And it's really exciting ... to see the Army working on the next generation of tools for us so we can maintain our edge, the cutting edge. It's mind-blowing stuff to think you are shooting a laser at something. Sometimes it's hard to fathom."

If the 2017 MFIX had a "star," it was probably the MEHEL. This year, the Stryker configured with the system was marked "MEHEL 2.0," and it sported a 5kW laser versus last year's 2kW laser.

The MEHEL 2.0 includes on-board radar, a second optic, increased laser power and increased engagement range, Erts said. In addition to doing a "hard kill," such as what was seen when the on-board laser shot a drone out of the sky, the system can also do a "soft kill." Instead of using a laser to destroy a drone, a "soft kill" uses electronic warfare capabilities to disable the communications link between a drone and its ground control station. Then, Erts said, "we can send artillery after the ground control station." Another possibility after a soft kill on a drone is collecting it to gather intelligence information from it.

One thing the MEHEL does not do is make noise, or create any Star Wars-like visual effects. When the laser fires, no sound comes from the vehicle. Observers can't actually see the laser emanating from the "beam director" atop the Stryker, though if they were close enough to the target, they might see a hole being burned into it from the laser's heat.--C. Todd Lopez, Army News Service

[Editor's note: Common laser sights we use on our handguns are 5mW--5 Milliwatt--5/1,000 of a watt. The Army is testing a 5 Kilowatt laser--5,000 watts.]

Caption: This Mobile High-Energy Laser-equipped Stryker was evaluated, last April during the 2017 MFIX at Fort Sill, Ok. The MEHEL can shoot a drone out of the sky using a 5kW laser. Photo: C.Todd Lopez

Caption: Spc. Brandon Sallaway, a fire support specialist and forward observer from Fort Carson, Co., points to a sticker on the side of the Mobile High-Energy Laser-equipped Stryker he helped evaluate at the 2017 MFIX. The stickers represent the number of drones the MEHEL has shot out of the sky using a 5kW laser. Sallaway was the first Soldier to actually use the MEHEL to take down a target. Photo: C.Todd Lopez

Caption: This unmanned aerial vehicle is one of many destroyed by the 5kW laser aboard the Mobile High-Energy Laser-equipped Stryker during the 2017 MFIX at Fort Sill, Ok. Photo: C.Todd Lopez
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Author:Lopez, C. Todd
Publication:Guns Magazine
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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