Responding to the U.S. Army’s urgent need for mobile air defense to protect ground troops, Raytheon Company integrated and demonstrated a Stinger air defense missile mounted on a Stryker armored fighting vehicle.
Raytheon incorporated the Stinger missile into a Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station, or CROWS, and mounted it on a Stryker. During a late September demonstration at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Army fired Stinger missiles from a Stryker vehicle and successfully intercepted airborne targets.
«With so many airborne threats in the battlespace, our ground forces need the protection of additional mobile air defense systems», said Kim Ernzen, Raytheon Land Warfare Systems vice president. «Combining these two proven systems gives the Army an immediate, low risk, high-value solution».
The Army is now evaluating the Stinger missile/Stryker vehicle solution.
The Stinger weapon system is a lightweight, self-contained air defense system that can be rapidly deployed by ground troops and on military platforms. It’s combat proven in four major conflicts and in use by more than 20 nations as well as all four U.S. military services.
A Stryker combat vehicle equipped with a 5-kW laser and an array of sensors spent several minutes scanning the horizon for a wayward «enemy» drone.
On a television screen in a nearby tent off Thompson Hill – a range used during the 10-day Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment here – observers watched the black and white output of those sensors on two flat-screen televisions, April 12. 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 that accomplished the kill – an experimental project called the Mobile High-Energy Laser, or MEHEL.
The MEHEL is just one system the Army is looking at to deal with the growth of inexpensive off-the-shelf unmanned aerial systems that are being seen in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
2017 MFIX EXPERIMENTS
Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Erts, who serves as the chief of experimentation and wargaming with the Fires Battle Lab at the Fires Center of Excellence here, said the MEHEL was just one of three drone-killing systems under evaluation at the 2017 MFIX, which ran April 3-13.
Also included, he said, was a system called the Anti-UAV Defense System and another branded «Hunter/Killer». There were also command and control systems that provide a common air picture down to platoon and company level, radar systems that can conduct counter-artillery missions, but can also look into the sky, and an unmanned aerial system that can haul supplies to Soldiers on the front lines of combat.
That equipment and the personnel tasked to evaluate it, came to Fort Sill to participate in the 2017 MFIX, which Erts said is a collaboration between the Fires Center of Excellence and the Army Capabilities Integration Center. At MFIX, he said, over 40 industry partners and government leads participated, as well as Soldiers from around the United States.
At this MFIX, the Army was looking to accomplish several goals. At the top of that list was finding better ways to pinpoint targets to put fires on, Erts said.
«We’d like to know where our targets are at», he said. «So, the targets are out on the battlefield somewhere. We’d like to know exactly where they are, so we can use one of our precision munitions to hit it».
Another priority, he said, 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, but then with a less-powerful laser.
«We are working with Space and Missile Defense Command, using their MEHEL to engage various targets, to include low-flying UAS», he said. This is the first year, he said, that uniformed Soldiers were actually tasked with using the system to take down actual aerial targets.
«They love the system and they are excited about not only what they can do with it in the air, but what they can do with it on the ground as well», he said.
Finally, Erts said, at this year’s MFIX the Army looked at new ways to deliver supplies to the edge of the battlefield using unmanned aerial systems, rather than convoys.
At the center of that effort was a project called the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply System, which was also on display at MFIX.
«Let’s say a Soldier is out of ammunition and they need a resupply in an emergency situation», Erts said. «They could launch the UAS, and without putting any Soldiers in harm’s way, they could deliver that box of ammunition to the front lines».
NOT STAR WARS
If the 2017 MFIX had a «star», it was probably the MEHEL. This year, the Stryker configured with that system was marked «MEHEL 2.0», and it sported a 5-kW laser versus last year’s 2-kW 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». That means instead of using a laser to destroy a drone, electronic warfare capabilities can be used 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».
Also, a possibility after a soft kill on a drone is collecting that drone 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, there’s no sound that comes from the vehicle. And observers can’t actually see the laser emanating from the “beam director” on top of 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.
ENVISIONING LASER USE
Captain 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, Texas. 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 UASs, 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 that 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, which are powered by the same fuel that runs the Stryker’s engines.
«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 that 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, Colorado, was one of the crew that participated in the MFIX and who worked on the crew that piloted the MEHEL.
He said he found the system was easy to use, and easy to learn as well.
«It uses stuff, controllers, that 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, are an array of stickers that mark each kill the vehicle has made. He pointed to the one that represents his own kill.
«I’m really excited to be part of a historical event», he said. «And it’s really exciting … to see the Army working on the next generation of tools for us so that 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».
UNMANNED AIRBORNE RESUPPLY
At MFIX, Soldiers aimed to do more than just blow up or disable enemy drones. Also on the agenda was using friendly drones to deliver supplies to Soldiers in need, so that manned convoys wouldn’t be needed.
«The problem we are trying to solve with the Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply System (JTARS) is how we conduct assured resupply over the last tactical mile to the point of need», said Captain Dustin Dunbar, with the Combined Arms Support Command, Sustainment Center of Excellence, Fort Lee, Virginia.
The JTARS used at MFIX was a 1/3 scale model «trainer», that really served as an example of what could be done, Dunbar said. The JTARS is meant to be a system, rather than particular vehicle.
At MFIX, the JTARS team demonstrated the capability the Army is after by using the trainer model. They had to move a pair of individual first aid kits from one location to another. They attached a few light-weight kits to a specially-built drone to serve as the payload. Then the drone lifted up off the ground and flew a preplanned route to a target destination, without needing a Soldier to guide it with a controller.
The current demonstration model carries about 5 pounds/2.27 kg. The expectation is that eventually the JTARS could provide the capability to carry up to 600 pounds/272 kg from a rear location to the front lines, where Soldiers might need anything from food to ammunition.
«So, if you can imagine a Stryker is out on the battlefield and it goes down», Dunbar said. «And that field maintenance team is working on it but they need a part from the rear. Rather than taking an entire convoy and going through convoy planning missions and stuff like that and getting on the road, instead you are just loading one piece of equipment – a repair part – within the JTARS and sending it point to point».
Critical to the JTARS concept is reaction time and assured resupply, Dunbar said.
Right now, Dunbar said, the model they have is capable of demonstrating what they want to do, though it might not be the final product. The existence of what they do have allows them to practice delivery of unmanned supplies and also allows them to practice getting access to airspace – something that sustainment units would have to learn to do if they were going to employ JTARS in a theater of operations.
«Your typical sustainment unit within the Army doesn’t have air assets», Dunbar said. «Plus, they lack the personnel, the structure, and the capability to plan, coordinate and deconflict airspace. So, we came out here with the Fires Battle Lab, essentially running the mission command piece of how to conduct this and the best practices to take back to hopefully make it to doctrine».
When Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were imperiled by the destructive power of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), a variant of the armored Stryker combat vehicle sporting a specially-designed blast-diffusing hull saved countless lives.
Particularly suited for transporting infantry in urban environments, the Stryker combat vehicle has become popular among Soldiers in the most dangerous and rugged areas overseas. They know the vehicle to be quiet, reliable, and easy to maintain and repair.
The vehicle’s stellar performance is doubtless related to the extensive evaluation it has undergone at Yuma Proving Ground and its three subsidiary test centers since 2002, including a six-month stint in the jungles of Suriname in 2008. Earlier this year, a new variant of the vehicle wrapped up a winter of extreme use at the Army Cold Regions Test Center.
Boasting an upgraded chassis and drivetrain along with a variety of mechanical, electrical and digital improvements to enhance its performance, the latest Stryker variant was subjected to more than 3,000 miles/4,828 km driving across rugged terrain in extreme cold.
«It looks like a regular Stryker, but it isn’t», said Richard Reiser, test officer. «It has a larger engine that significantly increases horsepower and torque. It has a much greater diagnostic capability that integrates subsystems. This gives operators a greater awareness of vehicle health and potentially improves situational awareness during the actual mission in the vehicle».
In the world’s most frigid environments, cold starts can be harrowing even for the most rudimentary vehicles. For a complex system like the Stryker, each component’s ability to function in extreme cold is crucially important and was subjected to keen evaluation in temperatures far below freezing.
«Like automotive trends in general, we have much greater reliance on computer systems in these vehicles», said Reiser. «Those computer systems and subsystems integrated into the hull depend on a great deal of computer software and hardware».
Though a vehicle’s performance characteristics are similar in cold weather once a vehicle is started and sufficiently warmed up, dramatic fluctuations in temperature can degrade performance of any number of a vehicle’s components.
«Stopping distance and acceleration shouldn’t change profoundly in this environment», explained Reiser. «The real issues tend to be related to rapid temperature differentials. Each sub-zero temperature threshold tends to flush out small anomalies».
Testers went to great lengths to test in potential failure conditions. For example, after a long drive on the range the day before a particularly nasty drop in temperature was forecast, the testers used fans connected to long tubes snaking into the engine compartment and other vital areas of the vehicle to blow frigid air onto the components overnight.
«We adjust to capture things and be ready for those colder temperatures on short notice», said Reiser. «It’s a small crew and it’s easy to make adjustments to the mission profile to take advantage».
Throughout the test, the Army evaluators used the same vehicle that had been subjected to punishing hot weather testing the previous summer at Yuma Test Center, Arizona. Personnel travelled to Yuma to take part in the testing and instrumented the vehicle in a configuration that applied to testing in both climates.
«It provides not only continuity in the instrumentation process, but helped our technician get it done quicker while supporting Yuma’s effort as well», said Reiser.
The test was more than just endless driving. The performances of every special feature the vehicle boasts were scrutinized, from its communications suite to the central tire inflation system that adjusts tire pressure as the vehicle is in motion.
«Cross country miles accumulate slowly in this environment», said Reiser. «We didn’t have consistently cold weather, so we were able to move what sub-test activity we were doing based on its environmental relevance. If it is something that’s not so much impacted by extreme cold, we moved that to the less-cold times».
Soldiers from Fort Wainwright’s 25th Infantry Division also assisted in the testing by entering and exiting hatches of the vehicle while attired in the full complement of armor and Arctic battle dress, ensuring that everything in the vehicle could be reached without snagging their bulky gear.
«It was great coordination between the two tests to pick the appropriate miserable day to get the Soldiers to do some limited ingress-egress testing», said Reiser. «When this vehicle is fielded and the Soldiers have the new body armor, we’ll already know it isn’t an issue for ingress and egress».
The multi-month test was completed ahead of schedule and under budget, which Reiser attributes to the flexibility of the rugged, self-contained six-person crew. The drivers, for instance, were from the testing center’s maintenance shop. They were able to troubleshoot and repair problems that cropped up without lengthy downtime at a maintenance shop many miles from the test range.
«We were able to eliminate delay times when we went into maintenance because maintenance was right here», said Reiser. «If we had a vehicle issue, they just changed hats and researched from a different vantage point what they had to do to solve the problem, which was a huge cost savings».