Key point: Lasers could help knock out or fry enemy nuclear missiles. However, it would not be perfect defense.
Space-based anti-missile laser weapons calls many military possibilities to mind. After all, there are already different lasers built, some more often discussed than others. For instance, is well known that lasers are being explored for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) defense in space. Moreover, the Missile Defense Agency officials tell The National Interest that weapons developers are now working on “power-scaling” laser systems to engineer weapons strong enough to incinerate enemy missiles in space. This not only requires range but also power systems sufficient to generate the desired effects.
Where would they fire from? Well that is a fascinating question which is already receiving a lot of attention. Lasers could at some point fire directly from satellites to burn holes in ICBMs either in space, during a beginning boost phase or during the terminal phase as it is closing in on a target.
Also, the Pentagon is developing surface ship-fired lasers strong enough to travel out to the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere. Engineers at firms like Booz Allen Hamilton are already doing conceptual work on the possibility of building new kinds of hardened, space drones or unmanned systems able to travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere for missile defense, surveillance or even attack missions.
Much work still needs to be done, yet initial efforts are beginning to show great promise, as many explain that the space environment is highly conducive to laser weapons. Lasers travel more effectively beyond the earth’s atmosphere and experience less “beam attenuation” or weakening which can often happen due to weather or other obscurants operating closer to earth. Also, lasers can attenuate at longer ranges, and many beams need to be consolidated into a single weapon to generate enough power to achieve the desired effect.
All this being considered, there is a lesser known application fundamental to laser weapons which brings substantial tactical possibilities to space war. This is using lasers as optical sensors, according to experts with the Air Force Research Laboratory working on new technical systems.
“Lasers are super useful as optics in space. We view lasers as foundational to our space architecture,” Colonel Eric Felt, Director, Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base.
Using lasers for optical or surveillance missions brings a number of potential tactical advantages. Not only do lasers travel at the speed of light but they are scalable, meaning they can be engineered to destroy, stun or disable. They can also, as Felt explained, be used to detect, surveil or even jam enemy weapons, objects and networks.
Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. 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 appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.