Pentagon Eyes Airborne Lasers for Missile Defense

Lockheed Martin is helping the Air Force Research Lab develop and high energy laser weapon systems for aircraft, including the laser pictured in this rendering. (AIR FORCE RESEARCH LAB/LOCKHEED MARTIN)
Lockheed Martin is helping the Air Force Research Lab develop and high energy laser weapon systems for aircraft, including the laser pictured in this rendering. (AIR FORCE RESEARCH LAB/LOCKHEED MARTIN)

The U.S. Defense Department recently began testing a laser that might someday be affixed to drones to knock incoming missiles out of the sky.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, nominated by the Obama administration to replace Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he agrees with Navy Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, on the need for the military to develop ways to thwart ballistic missiles earlier in flight, possibly with lasers.

"Current capabilities are limited to denial in the mid-course and beyond phases; we need to look for solutions across the entire ballistic missile kill chain," Dunford said in written remarks submitted as part of his confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "The science shows a ballistic missile is comparatively easy to detect and track while boosting."

He added, "Further, countermeasures on a missile, such as decoys designed to distract defensive systems, are not typically deployed until after the booster burns out. As such, boost-phase intercept is an attractive missile defense alternative."

Dunford said he would support more funding to develop a boost-phase airborne laser weapon system for missile defense in the next decade, "but only if operationally, technically and economically practical. The current budget supports pursuit of a laser demonstrator. A laser potentially would be capable of acquiring, tracking, and eventually destroying an enemy missile at a much lower cost than existing systems."

Indeed, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have already begun testing a version of the technology for eventual deployment on airborne platforms.

The service and the Pentagon's research arm this summer began ground testing a 150-kilowatt-class electric laser built by General Atomics against rockets, mortars, vehicles and surrogate surface-to-air missiles at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The project, known as the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System, or DLWS, is based on Darpa's High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, or Hellads.

"That's a pretty powerful laser," David Hardy, head of directed energy at the Air Force Research Lab, said in a recent interview. "It's exact power is classified."

The point of the work over the next decade is to show the laser can be integrated as a weapon system on aircraft in the fleet, from drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper to bombers such as the B-1B Lancer.

Indeed, by 2021, the service expects to fire laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17 cargo planes -- until miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from smaller aircraft such as F-15, F-16 or F-35 fighter jets, Mica Endsley, the Air Force's former top scientist, has said.

"A laser is basically a thermal weapon," Hardy said. "Its great advantage is all the power gets applied to a very small spot. You basically drill holes through material ... If I want to defeat a missile, if I drill a hole through the side of it, get to its electronics, the missile is defeated. But there are lots of targets for which we want to be able to do that."

The technology is attractive from a military standpoint because it has the potential for virtually unlimited magazines, he said.

"You're converting jet fuel into electricity, electricity into laser power, laser power into defeating the target," Hardy said. "So as long as I have fuel, I can keep firing the laser. So its magazine is as deep as I have fuel to keep running it and when I'm done, I can go put more fuel on it and the same laser weapon is there and I can use it again."

The Air Force is taking a different approach with DLWS than it did with a previous acquisition program called the Airborne Laser. The megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser was installed and successfully tested in a Boeing 747-400 Freighter, but the system took up the entire aircraft and the acquisition effort was canceled in 2009 amid questions about its cost and feasibility.

"It was overly ambitious," Hardy said. "I think what the Air Force and other services understand now is we can get truly remarkable things out of lasers in the long-term, but let's not try to jump to the hardest long-term problem first. Let's work our way up. Let's have more sensible approaches."

The Navy has already had some success by taking a similar tack. The service last year fired a 30-kilowatt solid-state laser aboard the USS Ponce amphibious ship in the Persian Gulf, marking the first-ever deployment of a sea-based directed energy weapon.

"Electric lasers are an emerging technology," Hardy said. "It's not clear that spending a whole lot of more money will let you go a whole lot faster."

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