U.S. Army technicians could get laser-armed MRAPs
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Imagine that insurgents attack an American air base somewhere in the Middle East, leaving unexploded bombs or booby traps littered across the runways.
Now imagine bomb technicians racing to the scene, zapping these hazards with a laser from inside an armored truck, and getting everything squared away in hours rather than days. That’s the impetus behind the U.S. Army and Air Force’s Recovery of Airbase Denied by Ordinance project, or RADBO.
With testing scheduled to wrap up in July 2015, this prototype vehicle uses a powerful laser to blow up mines and other explosives from a safe distance.
“If a runway gets hit, it can take days to weeks to get cleared,” Marshall “Doc” Dutton, a program manager at the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, told Army reporters. “With the RADBO, runways can be cleared and operational at a much quicker pace.”
As it stands now, specially trained crews send small robots to inspect possible explosive devices. If they want to get any closer, these ordnance technicians sometimes have to don cumbersome armored suits.
Either way, the procedure is time consuming and dangerous. And afterwards, bomb disposal teams spend nearly as much time actually preparing for — and blowing up — the deadly objects.
RADBO is a bit different. The vehicle has a turret-mounted laser and a giant robotic arm so crews could go through the same motions faster and with far fewer risks.
The entire system sits on a lumbering Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, which would protect troops from any unexpected blast. Able to shift up to 50 pounds of weight, soldiers could use the truck’s claw arm to dig into debris and hunt for unexploded ordnance or improvised bombs.
The system’s Zeus III laser can zap targets up to 300 meters away. And to help power all the extra equipment, the heavily modified Cougar MRAP has a second alternator.
“The biggest challenge for the PIF was … adding a second alternator,” Steven Colvin, the project manager at the Army’s Prototype Integration Facility, said. “The stock alternator was only 570 amps and we needed more to power the laser.”
Colvin’s team pushed the Cougar’s radiator and fan assembly forward to make room for the extra power converter. The vehicle now generates twice as much juice. Otherwise, the modifications—and even the laser itself—are proven technologies. The Army and Air Force have fitted various MRAPs with so-called “interrogator” arms for more than a decade.
The Pentagon started work on the Zeus lasers nearly 20 years ago. In 2003, the Army sent a Humvee with an earlier variant to Bagram airfield in Afghanistan for six months.
Referred to as either the High-Energy Laser Ordnance Negation System or the Humvee Laser Ordnance Neutralization System, the truck blasted more than 200 hazardous objects during the deployment. Two years later, the Army credited Zeus with destroying more than 1,600 objects in total, according to the July-August 2005 edition of Army AL&T.
The threats are very real. Three years ago, Taliban fighters stormed through the fence at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The insurgents destroyed or damaged eight U.S. Marine Corps AV-8 Harrier jump jets with explosive charges — and killed two Marines.
After a four-hour battle, Marines and British troops regained full control of the base. In this particular instance, the attackers focused on the parked planes — and the main runway escaped largely unscathed. It was the worst single-day loss of American aircraft since the Vietnam War.
But the situation could have easily been different. Insurgents can make a mess of things from a distance with mortar bombs and rockets, too.
These fears are hardly new. In South Vietnam, the Viet Cong bombarded American airfields and sneaked in commandos to hit aircraft on the ground.
During the first Gulf War, the Air Force worried that Saddam’s troops would launch deadly Scud missiles or other attacks against American forces in the region. In response to these concerns, the Army handed over two M-60 tanks with bulldozer blades to Air Force crews in Doha, Qatar.
If Iraqi rockets came raining down on them, the airmen planned to clear the runways of any debris and unexploded ordnance with these armored beasts. In the end, Iraqi forces only shot one Scud into the Arab state.
While the Cougars aren’t tanks, the MRAPs are definitely better protected than even up-armored Humvees. Plus, the armored trucks are far less complicated to drive and repair.
With help from the Army, the Air Force plans to build 14 more RADBO vehicles. The flying branch will put them through additional tests at Tyndall in September. With any luck, the flying branch’s commanders in the Middle East will get their new laser-armed trucks sometime in the next two years.