FORT SILL, Okla., -- A drone appears just below the horizon, its small frame camouflaged against the trees. Soldiers track the drone, lock on and, with the push of a button, a laser destroys the enemy aircraft.
Sounds like something from a galaxy far, far away, when in fact a Soldier, for the first time, shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle with a laser during the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment, April 3 through 13 at Fort Sill.
The shot was made by Spc. Brandon Sallaway, 2nd Battalion, 12th Field Artillery, part of 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division. Sallaway, a forward observer, came from Fort Carson to help experiment on the Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser (MEHEL) which is a 5-kilowatt laser mounted on a Stryker armored vehicle. Sallaway had no prior experience with the equipment and was trained on how to use the MEHEL once he arrived at Fort Sill.
"The vehicle is the same but everything inside is different," said Sallaway. "It's nothing too complicated but you have to learn how to operate each system and get used to the controls which is exactly like a video game controller. It's not that hard. I'm not a gamer and I picked up real fast. I know every other Soldier in my platoon plays (video games) at night so I'm sure they would pick it up."
The user finds the target on a screen, which Sallaway says is difficult to do because of the small size of the drone. However the difficulty is diminished with the help of radar, additional feeds and other forward observers. Then the laser locks on to the target and the user can fire. The reaction time is almost immediate, said Sallaway, and depending on where the user aims, a drone can be destroyed in 10 to 15 seconds.
While Sallaway serves as the trailblazer for Soldiers, Dee Formby, with Space and Missile Defense Command and vehicle platform lead, said this has always been the goal of the MEHEL. Last year the MEHEL had a 2-kilowatt laser and was operated by contractors. This year the goal of the experiments was to see if Soldiers could learn the new systems and add the additional duty to their workload.
"The big thing for MFIX this year is the multi-mission capability," said Formby. "Last year we focused primarily on laser operations and this year we're looking at how we can do laser operations and the fire support missions on the same platform with the same Soldiers. Basically, we're looking at task saturation for Soldiers and the ability to do multiple missions at once."
To minimize task saturation, the 2017 MFIX MEHEL integrated the electronic warfighting capability, the counter UAS mobile integrated capabilities (CMIC) system, and then also the targeting system.
"We are taking existing hardware and software suites and putting them together," said Formby. "So the CMIC hardware already exists. We showed that last year on a separate vehicle. We showed the laser last year on a separate vehicle. This year we put them on one Stryker with a common software and hardware interface."
Adam Aberle, with U.S. Army's Space and Missile Defense Command and who oversees all of the Army's laser technology development, said he learned early on that despite the new and innovative science and technology advancements made on behalf of service members, if the actual service member finds it difficult to use, then it is useless. Soldiers are needed help create the transition from concept to reality by giving feedback.
"One day we want this capability to transition into the hands of the warfighter," said Aberle. "So we gain feedback, 'this worked well, this didn't, so we can develop the technology to make it more useable to a Soldier at the end."
To help make the MEHEL usable, developers took feedback from Sallaway and other Soldiers who operated the system, like Staff Sgt. Eric Davis, 4th Infantry Division, Division Artillery. These Soldiers provided insight on ways to improve the system.
"Everything has its pros and cons. Every piece has its things it can improve upon," said Davis. "Every day we would say, 'this is what we would like to see,' and if it's something they can fix on the spot, then they will. If it's something they have to send back to the home station, then we're providing the analyst the data so it can be included in the final product."
For next year, Aberle said the goal is to bring MEHEL back to MFIX with an even more integrated system -- for example instead of having four different GPS units, to have one and a backup. He said they are also looking at putting a 10-kilowatt laser on the platform. As the science and technology is developed, Aberle said developers are keeping in mind the necessity for Soldiers to be able to maintain the equipment and not require specialists to maintain the equipment or for units to have the sent it back for maintenance.
"We don't want to have to create a whole new (military occupational specialty) -- we don't want to do that," said Aberle. "It would be additional training they would receive."
It only took a few days of training for Sallaway to learn to use the new system and then, during MFIX, he was able to shoot down many targets, drones. The first being a smaller drone, approximately 18-inches by 10 inches in size, at 600 meters.
"I didn't realize I was the first one to do it," said Sallaway. "I knew we were out here doing some new stuff. It's really interesting to see us turning the corner and embracing new technology. I hope we get it in the field before it becomes not-the-latest technology."