USAF Bomb Disposal Units Will Soon Get Laser-Armed Trucks To Rapidly Clear Mined Airfields

The vehicle-mounted directed energy weapon will help personnel clear airfields after attacks, but could also be useful in other roles.

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The U.S. Air Force is getting closer to actually fielding a vehicle-mounted laser weapon that will help it clear airfields full of mines, submunitions, or other unexplored ordnance rapidly after an attack. The Recovery of Airbase Denied by Ordnance system, or RADBO, could also serve as a stepping stone to wider spread use of ground-based directed energy weapons for mine-clearing and other missions across the U.S. military.

Earlier in August 2018, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC) posted a video online covering the RADBO vehicle and showing it zapping targets during various tests. It is the latest evolution of vehicle-mounted lasers that have been ongoing for more than three decades now.

“RADBO is the first Department of Defense ground-based laser system being placed into production,” Marshall Dutton, the EOD Modernization Program Manager at AFCEC, said in the video. “It’s gonna be a huge game changer for us so that we can get our airmen and our aircraft back in the fight,” U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sergeant Doug Moore, the service’s EOD Career Field Manager, added.

In its present guise, RADBO is a 4x4 Cougar Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MPAP) vehicle with a three-kilowatt Zeus III laser in a remotely-controlled turret on top and a second alternator to provide the requisite power. The truck also has an extendable arm so that personnel can move debris and other objects weighing up to 50 pounds while sitting safely inside its armored shell.

The Zeus III is powerful enough to detonate any residual explosives inside bombs, small submunitions from cluster bombs, land mines, and other improvised devices. It can hit targets over 980 feet away from the vehicle, allowing EOD personnel to quickly defuse threats from a safe distance without first having to physically inspect the object while wearing a heavy and bulky protective suit or use relatively expensive robots to do so remotely.

“RADBO has proven itself to be an all-weather capability,” AFCEC’s Dutton noted in the video. “It’s been tested against blowing wind, heat and cold, sand, the whole nine yards.”

Attacking runways to hamper an opponent’s air operations is an established tactic that the United States itself has engaged in during many conflicts. After U.S. military strikes against Shayrat Air Base in Syria in April 2017, the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad was able to quickly resume normal activities there in no small part because the runways and taxiways went unscathed.

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A close up of RADBO's Zeus III laser turret.

Typically strikes to crater runways and taxiways and make them unusable get paired with other area denial weaponry, such as artillery shells or cluster bombs full of scatterable mines, to slow down repair crews. Any unexploded ordnance would be a hazard, too. “Currently, if a runway gets hit, it can take days to weeks to get cleared,” Dutton, the Program Manager at AFCEC, said in an interview back in 2015

These strikes can hamper air operations from a base or bring them to a halt altogether. This, in turn, limits the ability of forces at those facilities to conduct offensive air strikes and combat air patrol, as well as defend the base from follow-on attacks.

It's hardly a new threat, but there have historically been limited safe and practical options to speed up the process of clearing any hazards. During the first Gulf War, the Air Force feared that Saddam Hussein might try to launch Scud ballistic missiles at various air bases in the region to try to stop U.S. air strikes.

In response, the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing (Provisional) in Doha, Qatar managed to acquire two M60A3 Patton tanks fitted with bulldozer blades form the U.S. Army as one interim solution. It’s not clear how well the airmen of the “401st Armored Squadron,” who had little training just in driving the heavy armored vehicles at all, would have fared and thankfully the missile attacks never came.

Michael P. Kopack via Wikimedia

An airman from the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing sits on top of an M60A3 tank during Operation Desert Storm.

The experience certainly wasn’t lost on the Air Force, which had first begun looking at lasers as a way to speed up EOD work in the 1980s. In 1996, the service, in cooperation with the Army, began developing the first generation of Zeus laser.

In 2003, the Army sent modified Humvee carrying a prototype of the directed energy weapon, known variously as the High-Energy Laser Ordnance Negation System or the Humvee Laser Ordnance Neutralization System, both abbreviated HLONS, to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. During that deployment, it blasted more than 200 objects, according to official reports.

The Army sent the Zeus-HLONS truck back to Afghanistan in 2005 to evaluate improvements to the design. The service said that it neutralized more than 1,600 unexploded munitions during that deployment, according to the July-August 2005 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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The prototype Humvee-based HLONS zaps a target in Afghanistan.

The MRAP-based RADBO is a significant improvement over that vehicle. In addition to the improved Zeus III laser and other systems, the vehicle itself simply offers additional basic protection over an up-armored Humvee that would let EOD personnel conduct their operations even under a certain risk of continuing attacks.

The Air Force’s long-standing plans have been to send the first of 14 planned production RADBO vehicles to bases in the Middle East and Afghanistan. There the most likely threats they would be responding to would be terrorist and insurgent attacks using improvised rockets, mortars, and other light artillery weapons, which remain very real threats.

At Middle Eastern air bases, they would also be well positioned to respond to a larger crisis with Iran, which could potentially involve a barrage of ballistic missiles with various payloads. Non-state actors, such as the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, are also increasing their ballistic missile and other stand-off capabilities that could threaten American facilities during a conflict.

But RADBO would also be useful during any high-end conflict, including in Europe or the Pacific, where a potential opponent, such as Russia or China, would very likely seek to neutralize air bases where American forces, or their allies, are operating from. I could help mitigate the impact of additional pre-emptive strikes against bare bases, or even highways, that friendly commanders might be planning to use as secondary dispersal sites. Without access to those locations, U.S. forces and their partners might end up presenting a prime target, bunched up together at a smaller number of large facilities.

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A US Air Force EOD airman prepares to move an inert rocket from the tarmac at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey during a training exercise. With RADBO, personnel could quickly neutralize this kind of threat and then rapidly clear it from a runway or taxiway.

The laser-armed MRAPs will also be the first tangible example of a broader push across the U.S. military to field various ground-based directed energy weapons in a number of roles, including for defending against small drones. The Army is looking to field a much more powerful 100-kilowatt design to defend against unmanned aircraft, cruise missiles, and artillery shells, rockets, and mortar rounds.

If the Air Force deems the deployments in the Middle East to be successful, it could lead to larger purchases of the bomb-zapping trucks, as well. RADBO itself could be adaptable to mine-clearing and other roles across the services far removed from established bases. In the tests in Afghanistan, the Army had already shown that the Zeus-HLONS combination could be valuable for quickly blasting roadside bombs and other similar battlefield threats.

However the RADBO system and the Zeus laser continue to evolve, the Air Force’s EOD look set to finally get the system into service after decades of research and development and they’ll be the first to have an operational directed energy weapon ready for routine use.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com