The Missile Defense Agency is engineering air-launched, high-powered, long-range laser weapons to destroy attacking nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles during launch and even as they travel through space -- bringing new levels of offensive and defensive layered firepower to existing missile defense technologies.
The Pentagon is, as an initial phase, looking at “laser scaling” to integrate enough laser energy and power to “burn a hole through the metal” of an ICBM, US military officials say.
This involves ground tests, laboratory work and ongoing computer simulations to assess the technical feasibility of firing lasers, traveling at the speed of light, from an air platform to derail, intercept, jam or destroy long-range enemy nuclear weapons -- such as an ICBM.
Ground and ship-fired lasers able to target enemy drones, incinerate low-flying aircraft and defend ground assets have existed for years. Engineering a small, air-fired laser able to hit ICBMs at launch, while approaching space or traveling through space - represents a new step in weapons development. For example, developing laser defenses for certain kinds of cruise missiles and ICBMs, would bring new possibilities to warfare.
“R&D (research & development) has showed that lasers have an application against cruise missiles and moving missiles,” Henry “Trey” Obering, III, former director of the Missile Defense Agency and current Executive Vice President and Directed Energy Lead at Booz Allen Hamilton, told a small group of reporters recently.
Sufficient altitude and a high amount of mobile power are they keys to a successful laser intercept, according to senior Pentagon weapons developers, who add that satellite-fired lasers are not quite there at the moment, yet likely to reach greater levels of operational maturity quickly - in coming years.
Right now, weapons engineers are looking at ways to get a powerful laser fired out of a “small device,” operating at highest possible altitude within the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere. If something could “fly around super high,” it would benefit from thinner air which enables lasers to operate at longer ranges without as much beam attenuation due to the challenges of traveling through space or encountering atmospheric obstructions.. “You want to get into thin atmosphere, and get as high as you can," a US military weapons developer said. The higher the altitude, the longer-range a laser can be fired.
“Altitude increases the range if you can operate a laser on a drone. There is thinner atmosphere, and the ability to achieve a greater slant range,” said Mark Gunzinger, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think tank partnering with Booz Allen Hamilton on laser weapons development.
The “small device” used to transport attack lasers would, among other things, need to travel with large amounts of mobile power, high-altitude propulsion or flight and some of fire-control, sensor or targeting system. Such a technology could involve a super high-flying drone or even a space-traveling interceptor adapted to accommodate laser weapons.
The first approach would center around hitting an ICBM during its launch or “boost” phase where it has not yet left the earth’s atmosphere. This would, of course, preclude a need to travel into space, but of greater importance, destroy the threat at the earliest possible point of flight.
Furthermore, introducing the possibility that, if derailed, jammed or stopped early on in flight, an ICBM could fall back upon the country which fired it -- bringing an entirely new level of risk.
“The real deterrent would be to have a nuclear missile come down on the country that fired it,” a US military weapons developer said.
The advantages of boost-phase intercept have been well documented; an interesting essay from a consortium of Pentagon, Air Force and industry laser weapons developers - from more than 15 years ago -- explained that boost phase ICBMs have a larger “infrared signature” due to burning fuel. In addition, the essay titled “Global Missile Defense in the Boost Phase,” from the Space-Based Laser Integrated Flight Experiment, says boost phase rocket bodies are fragile under “aerodynamic stress” and that a boost phase missile maintains a “slowly changing altitude, making it easier to track.”
“Additionally, because the warhead has not separated from the launcher, there is a relatively large lethal-hit area when attempting to destroy the missile,” the essay writes.
However, emerging technology is also raising the prospect of having a laser-firing entity from within or beyond the earth’s atmosphere able to destroy an ICBM as it travels through space during its mid-course phase.
“This could be used for mid-course,” a US military official said.
The challenge with operating lasers in space is that lasers could bounce off particles in the atmosphere, and “dilute” the power and efficacy of the laser before it collides with its target, making it too weak to burn through. Furthermore, given the presence of space debris, decoys and other countermeasures, space-fired lasers would need advanced sensors to discern the proper target. This sensor technology exists and was recently tested successfully by the MDA.
While relying upon large, mobile sources of power, laser weapons are known to bring a range of advantages, to include speed, low cost, scalability and precision. Beams can be combined to increase strength and they can be dialed from “non-lethal to lethal.”
“Based on the power of the laser beam and the quality of the beam, you can place the energy on a target to achieve the effect you want to achieve,” Gunzinger said.
Using lasers as weapons for this kind of missile defense, developers explain, represents a shift from merely using lasers as “laser rangefinders” to bounce off and locate enemy targets while traveling at the speed of light. These kinds of technical characteristics, Obering added, represent some of the key advantages of laser weapons.
“Lasers have stealth-like qualities in terms of sound and ability to be seen… for defense against swarming UAVs (drones), fast attack boats….and missiles,” Obering said.
High-flying drones, for instance, could offer enough space, weight and power to handle a laser, Gunzinger added. This could be one way in which various adapted platforms much help the use of laser weapons overcome or ameliorate the many challenges associated with beam attenuation due to range, space debris, weather or other impediments.
“There are different levels of atmospheric attenuation depending upon the frequency of the laser and the wavelength. We have to deal with how certain atmospheric situations impacts the propagation of a laser system. The shorter the range the less the impact,” Gunzinger said.
Thus far, the Army has fired lasers from Stryker vehicles, the Navy has already deployed the LAWs (Laser Weapons Systems) on ships, and the Air Force Research Laboratory is moving quickly toward arming fighter jets with laser weapons. The initial steps, AFRL developers explain, involve ground tests and upcoming air demonstrations. Given the challenges of engineering fighter jets to travel with the amount of mobile power sufficient to fire lasers, early demonstrations of air-fired lasers are likely to involve the use of larger platforms such as a C-130 aircraft. Nonetheless, developers do say that F-22, F-35 or F-15 laser-armed fighters are quite likely only a few years away.
“We are seeing the birth of another core competency much like we saw in the early 2000s with missile defense,” Obering said.
This article by Kris Osborn originally appeared in WarriorMaven in 2019.
Kris Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has a Masters in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.