In 2021, the Army tested the Directed Energy-Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system, or DE M-SHORAD, aboard a Stryker combat vehicle.

In 2021, the Army tested the Directed Energy-Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system, or DE M-SHORAD, aboard a Stryker combat vehicle. Army / Jim Kendall

Why the Navy & Air Force Can't Get Lasers Across the 'Valley of Death'

A new GAO report details missing links in efforts to move directed-energy weapons from the lab to the field.

Directed-energy weapons continue to hold the interest of defense officials looking for capabilities such as counter-drone and missile defenses, but a new report claims that the Air Force and Navy have yet to implement plans needed to move the technology through what’s known in acquisition circles as the “valley of death.”

The Government Accountability Office report, released Monday, examined directed-energy-program transition plans for the Army, Navy, and Air Force, noting that latter two have either not documented transition agreements or, in some cases, identified transition partners to help them move from prototype to full acquisition programs.

The report noted that over the past three years, the DOD has spent an average of $1 billion annually on directed energy weapons development efforts and have demonstrated and prototyped more than 20 systems over the past decade.

Directed energy weapons — mostly high-energy lasers or high-power microwaves — hold promise to counter drones and cruise missiles and were listed as a critical technology in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. 

But while the Defense Department has embraced rapidly developing new prototypes across a range of technologies, including directed-energy weapons, it is continually dogged by the challenge of moving those capabilities from prototype to production, a gap known colloquially as the valley of death.

“Despite the challenges for transitioning technologies, prior DOD and GAO work found that this gap can be bridged through cooperative efforts,” the GAO report said. “Technology development officials can make decisions that balance needs, resources and technical feasibility in a way that is responsive to the end-user. Acquisition programs and intended end-users can provide early project endorsement, and communicate measurable performance metrics for the technology to achieve.”

Achieving the collaboration to help move programs across the valley of death often requires transition planning even at the earliest stages of development, with the 2019 DOD Prototyping Guidebook calling for “drafting a transition agreement between the program manager and the transition partner within the first year of the project as a best practice.”

All three services have developed a range of directed-energy capabilities, but the report noted that Air Force and Navy have not taken key transition steps outlined in DOD guidance, namely identifying a transition partner early and drafting a transition agreement.

“With the support of leadership, Army engages multiple stakeholders and documents transition plans early in the prototyping process for DE weapons,” the report said. “However, the Navy and Air Force leadership have not consistently identified transition partners or drafted agreements to support transition to acquisition programs once the DE prototype was expected to transition.”

The report noted that the Navy’s strategic documents call for directed energy weapons to counter anti-ship cruise missile threats and that “selected prototypes are expected to transition to an acquisition program in fiscal year 2024,” but the service has not drafted a transition agreement with its potential partners.

Navy officials told the GAO they were “waiting on additional testing to ensure the capability could meet the Navy’s needs to defeat anti-ship cruise missile threats before generating agreements between developer and the acquisition community.”

According to the report, the Air Force has also not consistently identified transition partners and drafted transition agreements for prototypes it expects to bridge into acquisition programs when ready. 

Air Force officials told the GAO that work on evaluating the technology maturity of current directed energy weapons systems remains ongoing, but the GAO noted that “the future of DE weapons in the Air Force is unclear. 

“Although the Air Force developed a number of technologies that have been leveraged across DOD, Air Force leadership has not incorporated DE efforts into funding planning over the next few years, and there are no current agreements to transition any DE efforts,” the report said.

The GAO went on to note that neither the Navy or Air Force have a formal process for “collecting, tracking and incorporating feedback during the design and prototyping phases of DE development.”

The GAO offered four recommendations for the two services, including developing transition agreements between prototype developers and identified transition partners within the first year of a project and further documenting feedback during development and testing. 

The DOD fully concurred with three recommendations and partially with another, though the GAO noted that the department did not specify what it might not agree with in regards to the Navy.