WEST POINT, N.Y. – Classroom lessons are important, but U.S. Military Academy cadets and instructors learned how invaluable live demonstrations of emerging technologies can be when they received a visit from the Space and Missile Defense Command’s High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck, along with some of its engineers, March 2-5.
The cadets viewed live demonstrations of the HELMTT, and some cadets were even able to fire the laser at unmanned aerial vehicles, ceramic plates, steel and concrete. Col. John Hartke, head of West Point’s physics and nuclear engineering department, said it is important for the Army’s future leaders to be familiar with developing technology and weapon systems, because they may be the ones commanding these systems someday.
“We’re using this as an educational opportunity to teach the cadets about high energy lasers and high energy laser weapons and how they can be used on the modern battlefield,” he said.
The HELMTT system is a technology integration and demonstration effort with a solid state laser and agile beam control. It serves as a platform to assess the performance and capabilities of a 50 kW-class fiber laser, operated with a ruggedized laptop and game controller.
Adam Aberle, SMDC Technical Center’s chief of the HEL Division, said that while the HELMTT is primarily used for data collection on performance of the 50 kW laser, it also gives engineers the opportunity to engage with future warfighters.
“One of the benefits of bringing the HELMTT to West Point is to demonstrate a potential future weapon capability to the future Soldiers in the Army,” Aberle said. “They’ll be the ones commanding these new weapon systems, and they’ll be able to provide a dominance for our future warfighters so we do not fail in future battles. It’s important for cadets to understand what a laser does and to start thinking about the potential benefit of having a completely different type of weapon system on the battlefield to defeat threats and save Soldiers’ lives.”
Hartke said cadets enjoyed seeing the demonstrations and putting the material they have been learning in class into perspective by observing real systems being developed and tested.
“The cadets love it. They’re fired up. Today in class they were a little distracted - they didn’t want to talk about the normal lesson; they wanted to talk about the laser,” Hartke said. “I was able to bring in one of the targets we shot and we spent a good portion of the morning just having a conversation about lasers, laser effects and laser weapons; how they’re going to be used and how it’s going to potentially change the nature of warfare for us as we use these things to shoot down rockets, artillery, mortars and UAVs.”
Class of 2020 Cadet Michael Worth said demonstrations like this help him put academics into perspective and show him how his work in the classroom can benefit in real-life situations and turn into something much larger.
“It’s great to see it live because while we’re in the classroom and doing our day-to-day things, we forget what’s going on in the larger world. We hear our instructors talk about things that are developing with other nations and competitors, but knowing that our country has this kind of capability really just broadens our perspective and allows us to think greater,” Worth said. “We can apply this to our everyday situations. When I’m doing a problem set for math or physics, I can actually extrapolate it to what’s going on here, and essentially see how the fruits of my labor can pay off.”
Class of 2023 Cadet Codi Butt said she enjoyed the demonstration as well and is grateful for the opportunity to experience weapon systems prior to when she might be operating or commanding them.
“We might be some of the first people to use this new technology, so it’s good that we can get some exposure to it now, before we’re actually in charge of it and using it in the field,” Butt said. “We’re really lucky to have this exposure to real things that we could be using in the field. Seeing something in the field is unmatched to learning something in the classroom.”
During demonstrations HELMTT engineers stressed the importance of Soldier-centered design in the weapon system development process. What is designed and makes sense to an engineer in a lab may not be the most intuitive or efficient system in a combat scenario. Class of 2022 Cadet Luke Turner said he understands the importance of this relationship.
“The expertise that the civilian side and engineers offer, and the battlefield tactical expertise of Soldiers and officers really need to piggyback off each other,” Turner said. “This is a team effort. This is one nation with one common mission, and so, I think it’s very important to get feedback not only from the engineers who are trying to increase efficiency of this technology, but also to get feedback from the Soldiers looking at the applicability of these technologies.”
Soldier feedback plays a vital role in deciding what the end product of systems look like. Many new weapon systems including the HELMTT are operated using game system controllers, which are intuitive and easy to learn for Soldiers who grew up using these types of game systems. According to Hartke, changes like these will make it easier for Soldiers to learn and operate the weapon systems.
“They’ll gravitate to it immediately. Particularly when you’re using the game controllers that we’re using to target. I find it interesting to watch my children and cadets play online games, and see the interface and the information that’s available to them,” Hartke said. “These Graphic User Interfaces that we’re using here are things that they’re very familiar with. The ability to look at several screens and coordinate their hand movements to move the joystick that moves the laser are absolutely spot on for this generation.”
Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, superintendent of West Point, said he is excited about the future of laser technology and that the HELMTT demonstration served as a very practical way for cadets to learn about the future operating battlefield.
“The cadets are our future, and I can envision a scenario in these cadets’ careers where they would use this sort of technology in a multidomain operation. Our job at West Point is to educate, train and inspire the future Soldiers for our great Army to support and defend our great Constitution,” Williams said. “It’s important for these cadets to learn about all technologies, including laser technology, and to become practitioners for future battlefields.”
The collaboration between SMDC and West Point is beneficial in many facets. In addition to the visit from HELMTT engineers, SMDC also provided laser systems to West Point enabling them to stand up a new Outdoor High Energy Laser Laboratory. The HELMTT visit set a baseline for range operations at West Point, and helped create standard operating procedures being adopted by West Point for the future O-HELL capability, so the laser can be fired safely and efficiently.
In addition to giving the cadets exposure to high energy lasers, Aberle said the HEL Division team’s goal was to test the laser’s capabilities in the unique atmospheric conditions found at West Point. This was the fourth location where Aberle’s team tested the HELMTT’s performance, providing new data to study the impact of climate and atmosphere on the laser. The assessments on HELMTT and other high energy laser demonstration platforms are providing important information and risk reduction in support of Army’s efforts to rapidly deliver combat-capable laser weapon prototypes to Soldiers.