IDEX 2023 — Two major American defense firms, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies, have put high energy laser (HEL) technology among their center stage offerings at the international arms expo IDEX 2023 in Abu Dhabi, hoping to catch the eye of potential foreign partners or buyers.
Lockheed’s set up uses three large screens to demonstrate simulations of what they believe their HEL tech will be able to do, while Raytheon has a prototype HEL system itself on display.
Interest in high-energy lasers has risen with the proliferation of asymmetric airborne threats like rockets, mortars and, increasingly, relatively cheap suicide drones. Shooting those threats down with traditional weapons is difficult, expensive, or both. Proponents hope lasers, like the Israeli-developed Iron Beam, can take on the task effectively and at a fraction of the cost.
A week before the show Lockheed briefed journalists about the laser technology it is developing that, according to the firm’s strategy and business development director Tyler Griffin, “converts electrons to photons and gives more laser and less heat.”
He said that the laser systems can eliminate threats with the “speed of light” and they are developing different versions of these lasers for multidomain applications on land, at sea and in the air.
Lockheed is developing an array of laser-based systems, including Airborne High Energy Laser AHEL, HELIOS, Helsi Demos and others.
“We are aiming beyond the US market and looking for cooperation and collaboration and the ability to incorporate this capability into our partners systems,” Griffin said in the briefing.
From its side, Raytheon Technologies is promoting its own HEL tech, the High-Energy Laser Weapon System or HELWS, that it says has already been deployed by the US Air Force.
“It’s a relatively new technology for air defense and counter-UAS, but our system is the first operational system that has real hours behind it. And so that’s a very important feature here for [the United Arab Emirates] and for the region,” Raytheon’s director of requirements and capabilities for international high energy laser and c-UAS Jeff Newsom told Breaking Defense.
He added that the firm has already existing licensing for HEL technology over 45 countries, including many of the countries here in the Middle East region. Raytheon says its system has 25,000 operational hours and over 400 different drone defeats. After the Air Force, the US Army is planning to deploy the system as well, it says.
As for taking on drones, Newsome said, “HELWS current configuration does attack each drone individually, but because of the short time that it takes to defeat the targets, in a swarm scenario, it can defeat a target and directly moves to the next target.”
Lockheed and Raytheon aren’t the only American firms investing in high-energy laser tech — General Atomics and Boeing partnered for an Army laser as well, for instance — but the booths for those firms at IDEX don’t appear to be emphasizing laser tech as much.
And although Lockheed and Raytheon may be looking to Gulf nations as potential customers, local mandates about technology transfer and domestic production, as well as American export rules, could be hurdles. Griffin indicated Lockheed was undeterred.
“Lockheed Martin’s Directed Energy technology has reached a maturity point that enables robust discussion and collaborative identification of country-specific mission requirements, and those requirements will inform the construct of a future agreement,” he said.
He added that the directed energy follows the same model used for all other defense-related acquisitions by another country, in which government-to-government agreement is needed.
Still, Kristian Alexander, a senior fellow and head of the Strategic Studies department at the TRENDS research and advisory think tank in the UAE, said it could be a long road ahead for any cooperation.
“Theoretically it is possible for high-energy laser systems to be produced in the Gulf region, even with US export control regulations in place,” Alexander told Breaking Defense. “However, the development and production of these high-energy lasers are complex processes that require significant expertise, technology, and resources. US companies that have developed these high-energy laser systems have invested heavily in research and development, and it may take some time for certain Gulf countries to acquire the necessary capabilities to produce such systems.”
He added that US export control regulations, including the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the Export Administration Regulations (EAR), regulate the export of military and dual-use technologies to other countries.
“These regulations are designed to protect US national security interests and prevent the unauthorized transfer of sensitive technologies to other countries or entities. All of the Gulf countries are allies of the United States, but they would still need to comply with these regulations and obtain the necessary licenses and approvals,” Kristian said.
A State Department spokesperson told Breaking Defense that “we assess each sale on a case by case basis and are unable to comment before they are formally notified to Congress,” but declined to comment further specifically on high-energy laser exports.
Ryan Bohl, Senior Middle East and North Africa Analyst at the RANE Network saw it unlikely at the moment when dealing with such sensitive technology. “The US would likely be hesitant to allow such production given concerns about espionage in the region and the strained relations between the US and certain Gulf Arab governments, like Saudi Arabia,” Bohl told Breaking Defense.
But there may also be particular demand for the systems in the Gulf. Bohl said that if these beam systems are as effective as contractors claim — something that’s hard to verify at the moment given their limited in-theater experience — it could be useful for interdicting and deterring drone attacks by the Houthis and Iran.
“What is not known is how well they deal with swarm attacks, something that has bedeviled systems like Iron Dome and the Patriot missile batteries. It would also likely spur Iran to spend money developing drones, missiles, and rockets more likely to get past such laser-based defense systems,” Bohl said.
Kristian said, “High-energy lasers can be particularly effective against drones due to their flexibility and precision. They can quickly acquire and track targets, and can engage multiple targets simultaneously. Additionally, they are not limited by the number of interceptors available, as they can engage targets as long as they have sufficient power and cooling.”
He highlighted that the use of high-energy lasers for air defense in the Gulf region could have significant effects on the regional balance of power.
“Currently, the use of drones for military and non-military purposes is widespread in the region, and traditional air defense systems may not be as effective against small, low-flying drones. High-energy lasers could provide a new tool for countering these threats and could potentially enhance the defense capabilities of Gulf region countries,” he added.