The Department of Defense is trying to recapture the technological mojo it believes it had during the Cold War. Not surprisingly, while we were investing, quite rightly given the circumstances, in armored vehicles and counter-IED technologies to defeat insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia and China were trying to catch up with us in such areas as long-range precision strike capabilities. Even more ominous, they plan to employ such weapons en masse. In a recent speech, Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work, described the problem thusly:
“… competitors have caught up on this regime (precision guided munitions) and they’re going to fire mass guided missile salvos at us. So the first aspect of the Third Offset Strategy is to win a guided munitions salvo competition. If you cannot do that, and if you cannot convince your adversary that you will dominate in that competition, then they may feel emboldened to pull the trigger, and they may feel that they can forestall us in projecting power into a theater. A larger salvo of guided munitions generally will defeat a smaller salvo of guided munitions. …”
Work went on to state that one key objective of the Pentagon’s approach to regaining its technological advantage, the so-called Third Offset Strategy, must be to find means to defeat massed salvoes by precision-guided ballistic and cruise missiles. “We need a ‘Raid Breaker.’ We need a demonstration called Raid Breaker which can demonstrate that if someone throws a salvo of 100 guided munitions, we’ll be able to ride it out.”
We have been here before. Beginning in the 1980s with President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and continuing until the end of the Cold War, the United States struggled to find ways of defeating massed missile salvoes. Only then the primary threat wasn’t conventional missiles but the Soviet Union’s massive strategic nuclear arsenal.
Thirty years of investment in technology has resulted in the development and deployment of effective missile defense systems, particularly against shorter-range threats. Systems such as the Patriot, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System with the Standard Missile 3 and the Theater High Altitude Area Defense have proven that it is possible to “hit a bullet with a bullet.”
Then, as now, one of the primary challenges to the deployment of effective missile defenses was the presumed cost-exchange ratio. Simply put, the cost of intercepting an incoming missile or warhead had to be equal or less than that of an additional incoming weapon. Current systems, while quite capable against most if not all theater missile threats, are also relatively expensive. The Deputy Director of the Missile Defense Agency recently acknowledged that the current approach based on missile versus missile was a dead end. “The strategy is not sustainable. You can’t continue to buy these interceptors and have enough to necessarily intercept everything that’s out there.”
To be part of the Third Offset Strategy, the technologies for the “Raid Breaker” concept have to be less expensive on a per intercept basis than the cost of the next offensive missile. In addition, such systems have to be able to address the evolving threat involving precision guided, maneuvering and hypersonic missiles. Robust missile defenses, those able to meet the criterion for Raid Breaker, will have to be based on alternatives to hitting a missile with a missile, that provide low cost per shot, deep magazines, high speed of engagement and precision targeting. The Deputy Secretary made the point this way: “It doesn’t have to be a kinetic solution. Hell, I don’t really want a kinetic solution. That gets into an imposing cost strategy on us. It’s got to be something else.”
Fortunately, something else is within our reach. Steadily, methodically and smartly, MDA and the Services have been investing in a host of energy-based weapons systems. Last summer, the Office of Naval Research tested a 30 KW solid state laser weapon system demonstrator under real world conditions aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. This system successfully engaged small boats and unmanned aerial vehicles in addition to ballistic missiles. The Navy has begun work on a maritime laser weapon system that could be deployed on surface combatants in less than ten years. The Army recently tested a Boeing-built land-based tactical laser that successfully destroyed not only rockets, but artillery and mortar shells. BAE Systems has demonstrated the ability of an electro-magnetic rail gun system to fire extremely high speed projectiles out to very long ranges. A rail gun also has the capability of attacking large surface targets, at sea and on land.
Directed energy systems provide game changing capabilities that meet Deputy Secretary Work’s desire to bend the cost-curve in favor of the defense. The combination of extremely low cost per shot, deep (in some instances virtually unlimited) magazines and very rapid engagement of multiple targets are exactly those needed to counter the threat of massed attacks by ballistic and cruise missiles or shorter range rockets. Current kinetic missile defenses will still be employed against very high value targets. The Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Services need to get behind these directed energy programs. The defense department needs to start now developing the budgets and program plans that turn R&D efforts into programs of record.
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