The defense R&D system has been promising for more than 30 years to deliver directed energy weapons. The original Strategic Defense Initiative envisioned a variety of directed energy weapons from a ground-based free electron laser to a space-based, nuclear bomb pumped x-ray laser. That was one of the reasons the program got stuck with the label Star Wars.
While those systems were never realized, the R&D community did manage to develop some pretty nifty capabilities. The U.S. Army and Israel began cooperative development of a Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) in the late 1990s. By the early 2000s the testbed version of the THEL shot down 33 Katyusha artillery rockets and artillery shells, including several multiple engagements. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force was working on an airborne laser. In 2010 this system demonstrated that it could shoot down a ballistic missile in flight. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the immaturity of many of the component technologies for both the THEL and Airborne Laser, the fact that they were both chemical lasers and needed large amounts of very dangerous chemicals in order to operate and the high cost of developing an operational system, both programs were eventually terminated. But they had both proven that it was possible to hit and destroy very fast moving, and even short time-of-flight targets.
A new generation of directed energy weapons may be just around the corner. Earlier this year, the Army conducted a test of its High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) at White Sands. The demonstrator is a very low powered (10-15 kilowatt) laser mounted on a single large vehicle. Yet it was able to knock out multiple rockets, mortars and artillery shells in mid flight. It also demonstrated the ability to counter the electro-optical sensors mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy has been working on a Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD). In its MLD at Sea test, conducted in April 2011, the system successfully demonstrated all aspects of a maritime laser weapon system: target acquisition, beam pointing, power generation and control, thermal control and integration with ship combat systems. The MLD was able to track and defeat small surface targets. Also, it has shown a capability for passive tracking and identification of relatively small targets such as unmanned aerial vehicles and small boats.
Based on the success of these demonstrations, both programs are moving forward to field more powerful prototype systems. The Navy is going to deploy a more powerful prototype system next year on the USSPonce in the Persian Gulf. This system will be fully integrated with the Ponce’s power supply and onboard combat systems just as it would be if it were a deployed weapons system. The Army plans a series of ever more powerful prototypes until it achieves what it believes will be a power level sufficient for a deployable weapon.
The Army and Navy programs show not only how far the technologies required to field a directed energy weapon have come but also how much the military has learned about managing such high tech and potentially transformative programs. Both the Army and Navy systems use solid state lasers, doing away with all the problems and costs associated with the earlier chemical laser systems. Advances in component technologies such as the modules that form the heart of these lasers but also those for power generation and management, beam control, jitter compensation and target tracking allow for a lower cost, greater reliability and enhanced effectiveness of the systems. Unlike their predecessors, both current programs have cost just tens of millions of dollars, in part because they have both leveraged the work done by others as well as by the Air Force. Finally, rather than attempting to build the ultimate directed energy weapon from the start, both programs have adhered to the crawl, walk, run approach.
Directed energy weapons have the potential to transform many types of military engagements. For example, deployed with the proper power system, a laser would have an almost infinite magazine and each shot would cost less than a McDonald’s Happy Meal. This would totally unhinge efforts by potential adversaries to use cheap offensive systems to overwhelm U.S. defenses or simply pose an unsustainable cost-exchange problem for our military. In addition, a military that deploys directed energy weapons will own the electro-optical spectrum. A laser system can be tuned to be a sensor as well as a weapon and even as a weapon to cause nonlethal effects at power levels well below that needed to destroy a target. Adversaries seeking to acquire modern ISR systems with sophisticated sensors would have to worry about being left in the dark by a low power laser weapon.
This time, lasers might actually reach the field. This is because the current programs are well-managed, relatively low cost, based on maturing technologies and seeking to deploy systems with broad applicability. With directed energy weapons deployed on land, at sea and, possibly, even in the air, the U.S. military would have a powerful asymmetric advantage over future enemies.
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