High-energy Lasers
ARMY PUBLIC AFFAIRS, STEVEN FOUCHARD
© 2016 FrontLine Defence (Vol 13, No 5)

Lasers are not new to the Canadian Army, but researchers are finding new and exciting applications for them that could ­contribute to keeping troops safer on the battlefield.

High-energy laser (HEL) technology has the potential to enable soldiers to disarm improvised explosive devices from a safe distance, among many other uses. Canadian Army researchers who are currently investigating HEL devices say the potential is encouraging.

In the late 1960s, Canadian researchers working at the Defence Research Establishment in Valcartier, Quebec, made a game-changing advance in laser technology with the development of a laser known as the CO2-TEA, which continues to have many industrial applications. 

January 2016 – A Canadian Armed Forces soldier takes aim with a Multiple Integrated Laser Emanating Systems simulated rocket launcher while conducting a simulated attack during Exercise Allied Spirit IV.
January 2016 – A Canadian Armed Forces soldier takes aim with a Multiple Integrated Laser Emanating Systems simulated rocket launcher while conducting a simulated attack during Exercise Allied Spirit IV. (Photo: Cpl Nathan Moulton. ©DND/MDN 2016.)

Today, the Canadian Army (CA) continues to take a serious look at the latest in laser technology, and is finding plenty of promise. Michel Szymczak, Director Science & Technology (Army) at Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), oversees the Army’s science and technology portfolio, within which new technologies are studied. 

“Lasers have great potential,” says Mr. Szymczak. “Our purpose is to further our understanding of the technology, what it can do, what the benefits and limitations for military applications are and how safe they are to operate. Then we inform the Army what those capabilities are and what those possibilities are.”


DRDC’s high energy laser (HEL) mobile laboratory at 2nd Canadian Division Support Base Valcartier at sunset (the inset shows a night vision depiction of green aiming lasers). (Photo: Defence Research and Development Canada)

More specifically, DRDC is investigating potential new uses for high-energy laser (HEL) technology. As Mr. Szymczak points out, they have come a long way from the liquid-cooled 10-watt laser he used as a graduate student in the mid-1980s. “It burnt paper and wood if you kept it long enough on the target. And now we’re at tens of kilowatts,” or a thousand times more powerful.

Researchers recently broke the 100-kilowatt barrier, though the CA is only working with 10-kilowatt-class lasers.

HEL technology is widely used in the civilian world for welding work and the CA already includes a number of laser tools in its arsenal (including range finders, target acquisition systems, and visual warning technology), but researchers are finding new and exciting applications for them that could contribute to keeping troops safer on the battlefield.

2014 – First Lieutenant Brad Bynum of the U.S. Army demonstrates a laser rangefinder to Cpl Craig Davis 3RCR during  Op REASSURANCE.
2014 – First Lieutenant Brad Bynum of the U.S. Army demonstrates a laser rangefinder to Cpl Craig Davis 3RCR during Op Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Mark Schombs)

The key priorities for the CA are finding safer ways to deal with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), unexploded ordnance and unmanned drone threats. “We’re working to see how we could neutralize unmanned vehicles using lasers,” Mr. Szymczak explains. “You could have an effect on the sensors and the optics by delivering that concentration of energy on the target. You could disrupt or destroy it. It’s been demonstrated by the United States that you can track and disable air platforms.”

Crude but devastating IEDs took a heavy toll in Afghanistan. HEL-based devices, including two on loan to the CA from the United States, offer the promise of a much safer way to disarm, neutralize and destroy them. One has been mounted to the turret of a Cougar vehicle as a demonstrator. The Cougar is one of three vehicles in the CA’s Expedient Route Opening Capability, which supports the detection and disposal of buried IEDs. “You can target specific components of the IED,” says Mr. Szymczak. “For example, if you see wires, you could cut them from a distance. The advantage is that you do it while keeping the soldiers out of harm’s way, and neutralize the threat in a timely manner. The distance could be from a few metres to a few hundred metres. So it’s quite significant.”

Another aspect of upcoming research, he adds, is countering the lasers that a future adversary could use against Canadian troops.

A close-up of the beam expander system used with DRDC’s high energy laser (HEL). Researchers at 2nd Canadian Division Support Base Valcartier are currently evaluating HELs, which have strong potential as battlefield tools.
A close-up of the beam expander system used with DRDC’s high energy laser (HEL). Researchers at 2nd Canadian Division Support Base Valcartier are currently evaluating HELs, which have strong potential as battlefield tools. (DND Photo)

“Right now there are simple means that are being used, such as smoke as an obscurant,” Mr. Szymczak explains. “There are different compositions of smoke for different threats – you hamper the propagation of the beam in the air. One day lasers will be used as a threat against us, so that’s something we have to keep in the back of our minds. We will be exposed to it sooner or later. As such, we have to consider emerging threats and ensure that the Army is not technologically surprised.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Jake Galuga, who has been observing DRDC’s work for the CA’s Directorate of Land Requirements, notes that, while the technology has been proven, there is still some way to go in determining how it can best be integrated into the CA.

“It is going to take a while to figure out if and how we want to use it,” he says. “There are legal aspects to consider, there are practical aspects to consider, and certainly developing any new technology takes resources.

“High-energy lasers are not far-future items in terms of technological readiness,” adds Galuga. “The notion that this is 30, 40, or 100 years down the road needs to be dispelled.” 

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Steven Fouchard is with the Directorate of Army Public Affairs.

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