The threat posed by improvised explosive devices was extensive during both Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. The extent was such that the Army established a Counter IED task force to address this issue.
Before then, however, on Dec. 9, 2002, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. John Keane directed that the Zeus-High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or HMMWV, Laser Ordnance Neutralization System, or Zeus-HLONS, system developed by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command be deployed to Afghanistan. Three months later on March 18, 2003, the Zeus team was en route.
Debra Wymer, former director, USASMDC/ARSTRAT Technical Center, observed in a 2013 interview, "since 2001, we've really tried harder to identify things that could make a difference sooner rather than later.
"Rather than the normal technology progression and taking years to get the technology demonstrated, then more years to mature it and transition it to a program," she added. "Instead of taking twenty years, to see how we could rapidly get something out there. And, we do have some successes."
The Zeus laser neutralization system was one example of this initiative.
Zeus, a self-contained solid-state laser system on an unarmored HMMWV, debuted in December 2002 at the Association of the U.S. Army Symposium in El Paso, Texas. At a distance of 200 meters, it uses the laser beam to heat the target igniting the ordnance in a controlled manner, "thereby reducing collateral damage."
In addition with the Zeus system the counter IED personnel do not need to leave the vehicle and expose themselves to sniper fire.
At the El Paso event, Dick Bradshaw, director of the SMDC Directed Energy Directorate noted, "the system has not been through the military test and evaluation cycle, but it has blown up a lot of mines. We know the system works; we just have not cleared it for use in all military operations."
At the same time, Bob Snead, chief engineer added, "we would like to get some of these prototypes out to the warfighters to let them use it. That would be the true test of lasers of substantial power on the battlefield and enable us to better to address the enormous humanitarian issues of unexploded munitions."
Stationed in and around Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, Zeus was the first high powered laser weapon system to be deployed to a combat zone, effectively demonstrated its counter mine capabilities.
During its six months in theater, Zeus equipped with a 0.5 kilowatt laser neutralized 211 Russian ordnance of ten different types found scattered around bases and along roadsides. 51 of these were destroyed in a single 100 minute period, setting a record rate for ordnance disposal.
The commander of Combined Joint Task Force 180 engineers determined that the Zeus performed well and characterized the system as highly successful.
Following this deployment, research and development on the Zeus would continue with a variety of technical improvements to the laser. Improved laser strengths, for example, would lead to lighter-weight equipment and improved distances.
The Zeus would also return to a combat theater, the next time to Iraq to test its effectiveness within this new environment.