The U.S. military has led the world in innovation. A major reason there was never a war between the United States and the Soviet Union was because this country was able to stay a step ahead technologically. Faced with a massive Soviet conventional threat to Western Europe and our Pacific allies, the Department of Defense (DoD) invested in a host of advanced, even transformational military capabilities including precision-guided weapons, advanced air and missile defenses, stealth aircraft and unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Try as it might, the Soviet Union could never catch up to the U.S. military qualitatively, which was a major reason it spent so lavishly to create a quantitative advantage in conventional forces. Fortunately, the Soviet Union was deterred long enough to collapse of its own inherent contradictions. However, the power of the weapons built to deter Moscow has been demonstrated in a series of lesser conflicts over the past two decades.
Today, the U.S. military needs to pursue another revolution in military capabilities. Although the U.S. still has an advantage in some critical technology areas such as stealth, the gap between our military and that of potential adversaries is narrowing rapidly. The proliferation of advanced conventional weapons is picking up steam. Many nations also are investing in UASs, stealth aircraft and undersea systems as well as the means to conduct cyber attacks and electronic warfare against U.S. forces. China now deploys a large arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, including many that have extremely good guidance systems. China and others are investing in large arsenals of missiles and rockets in the hope of overwhelming their opponents’ defenses or at a minimum, creating an unfavorable cost exchange ratio. If the U.S. is to deter future conflicts with major powers, it needs to invest not only in its current military but in the one for tomorrow.
One technology with potentially revolutionary implications for the battlefields of the future is directed energy (DE). DE weapons, but particularly lasers, offer enormous opportunities to not only defeat potential adversaries’ investments in missiles, rockets and artillery but also future air breathing threats, both manned and unmanned. DE weapons offer instantaneous times of flight, rapid engagement and, if connected to advanced power systems, limitless magazines.
Each of the military services is pursuing a DE program, sometimes several. The Army is testing a high energy fiber optic laser for use against rockets, artillery and mortars. It will be testing a 50-100KW demonstrator in the next couple of years. The Marine Corps too is testing a laser defense system intended for the same mission. The Navy is planning to deploy a 100-150KW prototype solid state laser on the USS Ponce this year and could have a full-up weapons system ready to go in 2016/2017. The Navy is also working on an electromagnetic launch weapon. The Air Force plans to initiate an analysis of alternatives (AoA) for lasers on aircraft next year and has put out a request for information on air-based lasers.
Other nations are also working to develop such weapons. Low power laser systems have already been tested against small boats, unmanned vehicles, mortars, artillery, etc. What else needs to be tested/demonstrated? It is clear that DE weapons are going to be deployed sometime by someone. The question is will it be the United States?
It is time to light a fire under DoD’s various DE programs. The services, particularly the Navy and the Army, need to be directed to organize themselves to deploy DE weapons as soon as they are feasible. For the Navy, this means taking some very straightforward steps.
- Establish a program of record with the appropriate funding line as part of POM 15;
- OPNAV needs to define the requirements for DE weapons on ships;
- Begin an AoA for near-term applications of ship-based DE weapons;
- Begin to develop a plan both to backfit DE weapons into DDG-51 Flight II and to design and integrate them into the new DDG-51 Flight III design/integration.
DoD needs to make it clear that DE weapons are no longer just science experiments. They have been successfully demonstrated and tested repeatedly. It is time to move towards actual weaponization and deployment. The go-slow, take-small-steps, wait-and-see approach works okay for research organizations and government labs in general, but it is not adequate for the creation of a new generation of military capabilities. Nor is the current approach likely to entice industry to invest scarce corporate resources in this area. As we begin a new year and debate/defend/advocate for investment in maritime lasers, the current state of play makes it difficult to win the argument. It also increases the risk to U.S. forces for the future.
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