Pentagon: We’re Closer Than Ever to Lasers That Can Stop Iranian, North Korean Missiles

Close up of the Lockheed Martin Airborne Laser turret in a clean room.

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Close up of the Lockheed Martin Airborne Laser turret in a clean room.

With global demand for missile defense surging, US officials are fine-tuning cheaper, more powerful laser weapons.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – The Pentagon is looking to lasers as a cheaper, more effective way to shoot down long-range missiles fired at the United States by North Korea and Iran.

After experimenting with the technology for more than a decade, U.S. military officials said “directed energy” is near the point where they could use it on the battlefield.

“It’s not a hope. This is what we’re doing,” Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said Wednesday. “I view this [as] highly important for the future.”

Syring and other military officials struck a common theme at this week’s annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium, arguing that lasers could ultimately augment existing missile interceptors. They want lasers for two main reasons: they could shoot down missiles earlier than today’s interceptors and they’re much cheaper to fire.

“We have to deal with the fact that our interceptors are more costly,” said Katrina McFarland, the Army’s acting acquisition executive. “The cost dimension of warfare must be switched from our side to the adversary side.”

Army leaders are concerned that they might have to fire expensive interceptors against far cheaper rockets or small drones packed with explosives.

“The problem we have now is the worldwide demand for missile defense is greater than the capacity,” James Johnson, director of the Future Warfare Center of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, said Monday at a Defense One Cocktails and Conversation in Huntsville.

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Congress has appropriated $119 billion for U.S. missile defense projects, including ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California, deployable THAAD interceptors, and radars, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The Pentagon has asked Congress for $34.87 billion for these projects between fiscal 2017 and 2021.

“Spending will likely continue at roughly the current rate for the foreseeable future,” the think tank said in a recent report.

The Navy recently deployed a prototype 30-kilowatt laser on the USS Ponce. The laser, it says, can shoot down small drones and disable speedboats. And it only costs less than $1 to fire compared to missiles, which usually cost millions of dollars a piece.

But shooting down a missile would take far more power and hundreds of kilowatts. The technology has to shrink before a fighter jet or drone could carry a laser powerful enough to shoot down a missile.

“That’s why we’re pursuing the technology in terms of trying to mature, not just the technology, but drive the size and weight down and we can start to think operationally about what that means,” Syring said.

The goal is to reduce the size and weight of existing lasers, something the Pentagon has been trying to do for the past decade.

Unlike existing missile interceptors, which collide with enemy rockets in the middle or latter phases of a launch, an anti-ballistic missile laser would attempt to shoot down missiles as they are being boosted toward outer space. The Pentagon tried to do this with the Airborne Laser project last decade, an expensive project in which a laser on an aircraft ultimately shot down a missile in the boost phase during a test.

A major issue with the test was that the plane carrying the laser, a Boeing 747, had to get close to the site where missile launched. The massive plane had to carry chemicals needed to power the laser. The aircraft’s size made it a sitting duck to enemy aircraft and missile systems.

The Missile Defense Agency plans to conduct “a lot of” testing with lasers mounted on Reaper drones “over the next few years” culminating with a “low-power laser demonstrator” project in 2021, Syring said. Pentagon officials hope to decide what that demonstrator might look like “in a few years.” The goal of that project is to fly a powerful laser at a high altitude that can track possibly kill a missile soon after it is launched, during its boost phase.

In addition to lasers on drones, the Army is eying lasers on the ground to shoot down missiles.

Lt. Gen. David Mann, the head of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command, who briefly spoke at this week’s conference, referenced improvements to the Army’s Avenger, a Humvee-mounted system that fires Stinger missiles at cruise missiles, with lasers or other forms of directed energy.

“That’s something that’s getting a lot of interest,” he said.

Tom Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said lasers might be sooner used for tactical missile defense, currently done by systems like Avenger or Israel’s Iron Dome, but in time could be mounted on drones that would attempt to shoot down the missiles soon after they blast off.

The maturation of laser technology in recent years is helping to drive interest, said Doug Graham, vice president of missile systems and advanced programs for Lockheed Martin.

“We’ve been putting a fair amount of efforts ourselves into maturing some of the few technologies, building on the capabilities that we have,” he said.

Lockheed acquired Aculight, a Bothell, Washington-based company that builds lasers, in 2008 to better position itself to win Pentagon work. The company has also been self-funding laser development work and Lockheed is working on a 60-kilowatt laser for the Army.

“We expect to see the power levels continue to increase,” Graham said. “The beauty of this is it’s still remaining pretty nice and compact.”

Shooting down a missile requires more than the laser itself, it involves steering mirrors, adaptive optics and software that can track a target.

Both Lockheed and Boeing – which has built a high-power laser for the Army Stryker vehicles – showed off small drones with holes burned through them by low-power lasers. To destroy a missile screaming toward outer space, a much more powerful, “couple hundred kilowatts” laser is needed, Graham said.

“We’re not there yet, but I think our view is within five years, we’re going to be there,” he said. “We’ll be able to demonstrate … a lethality of the boost phase.”

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