Competition To Build An Army Stryker That Zaps Drone Swarms Heats Up

General Dynamics Land Systems, or GDLS, announced a formal partnership deal today with Epirus that will include work to integrate the latter company’s Leonidas high-power microwave weapon onto a variant of the 8×8 Stryker wheeled-armored vehicle. The two companies are pitching this combination to the Army, which plans to supplement its new gun and missile-armed short-range air-defense (SHORAD) Strykers with versions carrying directed-energy weapons. GDLS and Epirus’ proposal will be up against multiple laser-equipped designs, including one from a Raytheon and Kord Technologies team already undergoing Army testing.

A GLDS press release says that its new Strategic Teaming Agreement with Epirus will also involve projects that could see Leonidas installed on “other manned and autonomous ground combat vehicles” in addition to the Stryker. GDLS produces a number of different unmanned ground vehicles, including the Multi-Utility Tactical Transport (MUTT) series and the Tracked Robot 10-Ton (TRX), both of which the Army has been testing in various configurations.

A rendering of the proposed Stryker variant equipped with Epirus’ Leonidas high-power microwave directed energy weapon., GDLS

“General Dynamics Land Systems continues to evolve the Army’s largest and most reliable ground combat vehicle fleet with next-generation innovation and high-tech solutions,” Danny Deep, President of General Dynamics Land Systems, said in a statement. “This partnership with Epirus benefits the Army’s Stryker mobile SHORAD formations by offering cutting-edge, counter-electronics and counter-swarm capabilities.”

“With Leonidas integrated into GD’s combat vehicle fleet, we are unlocking new SHORAD and counter-electronics capabilities to equip our warfighters with combat effective systems that dismantle the threats of today and tomorrow,” Leigh Madden, Epirus Chief Executive Officer, said. “I look forward to continuing our partnership with our General Dynamics Land Systems colleagues and know that, together, we can deliver on our customers’ mission needs.”

High-powered microwave (HPM) directed-energy weapons, in general, are capable of disrupting or disabling electronic systems on a target — literally burning them up if the weapons are powerful enough. An HPM system’s power levels and how it focuses its beam have impacts on its range and ability to engage multiple threats at once, too.

Epirus says that the technology behind Leonidas makes it particularly efficient through the use of “Artificial Intelligence-controlled solid-state power amplifiers to achieve extremely high levels of power output.” The company says this makes the core components of this directed-energy weapon highly scalable, as well. 

The Army’s interest in a Stryker-mounted directed-energy weapon system is primarily about short-range air defense, with a particular focus on unmanned aircraft, including countering attacks by large drones or even fully networked swarms of drones. Depending on the exact capabilities of the system it chooses in the end, it could potentially be employed against more traditional aircraft, as well as low-flying cruise missiles, and even threats on the ground. The Army previously acquired and field-tested a microwave weapon ostensibly designed for non-lethal crowd-control use. 

Thanks to a cone-shaped beam, HPM weapons have been touted in the past, as offering greater potential to counter drone swarms than lasers, which have to focus on one target at a time. “The fact that you can simultaneously track and immediately move to the next target to address not just a swarm, but multiple swarms, is a big advantage,” Don Sullivan, chief technologist of directed energy at Raytheon’s Missile Systems business, said in 2018 regarding an HPM system the company had supplied to the Air Force.

At the same time, in the past, scaling down and reducing the power requirements for HPM systems to make them more viable — especially in a mobile, ground-based context — has proved challenging. Epirus’ website specifically says Leonidas has the ability to “startup in minutes, not hours,” in addition to having a relatively compact design.

In the meantime, the Army is already testing a Stryker-mounted 50-kilowatt-class laser weapon system from Raytheon and Kord Technologies, which won a shoot-off earlier this year as part of what is officially known as the Directed Energy Maneuver Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD) program. Raytheon says its weapon is also capable of engaging rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds, a mission set commonly referred to as Counter-Rockets, Artillery, and Mortars (C-RAM), in addition to drones and other low-flying aerial threats. 

The laser-armed Stryker from Raytheon and Kord Technologies the Army is already testing., Raytheon

Northrop Grumman had initially been set to take part in that testing, but “was unable to meet the criteria agreed upon at contract award at the check-out,” the service told Defense News in August. The Raytheon-led team won a subsequent contract to supply three more laser-armed Strykers, enough to field an experimental platoon to explore concepts of operations using versions of these vehicles equipped with directed-energy weapons, in September. 

However, the Army has said that, when the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) turns the DE M-SHORAD program over to the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Missiles and Space, slated to occur sometime in the 2023 fiscal year, that it will hold a new competition, which could result in the selection of a final design for full-rate production. It’s worth remembering the Army has been experimenting with ground vehicles armed with lower-powered lasers, including a Stryker with five-kilowatt class type, for years now.

As such, earlier this month, Lockheed Martin unveiled its own proposed laser-armed Stryker in anticipation of that future opportunity. The company’s Directed Energy Interceptor for Maneuver of Short Range Air Defense, or DIEMOS, is another 50-kilowatt-class laser weapon.

An artist’s conception of Lockheed Martin’s proposed laser-armed Stryker., Lockheed Martin

Whatever combination of systems the Army ultimately chooses as the winner of the DE M-SHORAD competition, a vehicle the service is tentatively calling the Guardian, will be part of a new array of layered air-defense capabilities the service is working on acquiring. Short-range air defense has been an area the Army and the rest of the U.S. military have seriously neglected in recent years, as you can read more about in this past War Zone feature

The growing threat of drones, in particular — as well as that of incoming cruise missiles — has reinvigorated interest in SHORAD in recent years. Small drones and cruise missiles represent very real dangers to American troops operating in combat zones abroad and to military facilities, critical infrastructure, and other targets off the battlefield, including inside the United States. Lower-tier, but still very dangerous unmanned aircraft and cruise missile capabilities are increasingly available to even nonstate actors, which only increases the potential for these kinds of attacks.

The Army has already begun to acquire and field another M-SHORAD version of the Stryker, now dubbed the Marauder, which is armed with heat-seeking Stinger and millimeter-wave radar-guided Longbow Hellfire missiles, along with a 30mm automatic cannon. The service’s plan is eventually to field Marauders and Guardians alongside each other to provide complementary effects. Those systems could then be integrated into a broader air-defense network through the new Integrated Battle Command System.

The development of other short-range air defense systems is going on elsewhere throughout the U.S. military, as well. This includes designs featuring directed-energy weapons, including both lasers and HPMs, with the latter category including the Air Force’s Tactical High-Power Operational Responder (THOR) demonstrator and a follow-on to that project, called Mjolnir, which was announced just in August. Most of these efforts are focused primarily on countering the expanding threat posed by unmanned aircraft. HPMs have been also suggested in the past as a possible close-in weapon system option for U.S. Navy ships.

With regards to the Army’s DE M-SHORAD program, competition is heating up and looks set to present the service with an opportunity to decide whether an HPM or a laser best suits its requirements for a Stryker armed with a directed-energy weapon.

Contact the author: