Battlespace Tech

Study: DOD needs to field laser weapons ASAP

Army High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator

The Army’s High Energy Laser mobile demonstrator is due for live-fire tests.

Among the emerging components of the Defense Innovation Initiative launched late last year is a concerted push to develop directed-energy weapons, including high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves.

As a number of test platforms are fielded, including land- and sea-based platforms like the anti-drone laser the Navy deployed in the Persian Gulf last year, military planners are attempting to move beyond high-profile failures of the past, most notably high-energy lasers for missile defense.

According to a recent study on direct-energy weapons by the Center for a New American Security, "despite resource levels that are inadequate to fully exploit the potential of directed-energy weapons, there is substantial and growing evidence that laser and microwave weapon systems are finally coming of age for battlefield use."

One reason for optimism about integrating such weapons into ground, air and naval forces is that current programs are more modest that the overly ambitious "Star Wars" missile defense efforts of the 1980s. The think tank concluded that directed energy programs could be used in mission applications ranging from defending ships and bases against certain forms of attack to combating identification and counter-electronic missions.

The Air Force has not ruled out laser weapons as a possible counterspace weapon to defend its satellite constellations. Based on the fear of creating new debris fields in space—space junk that could knock out critical infrastructure on Earth—analysts think laser technologies that could blind but not destroy satellites are a likely focus of Air Force development.

Meanwhile, the pace of development is quickening. For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced in May that the High-Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System would move from laboratory development into Air Force field-testing. And the Army’s High Energy Laser mobile demonstrator is advancing to live-fire tests.

The security study listed a number of features that would speed the deployment of directed-energy weapons, including:

  •  Scalability, including the capacity to operate at high- or low-power output.
  •  The ability to operate at a wide range of frequencies.
  •  Compact and efficient systems that minimize power and cooling requirements.
  •  Modular designs that would fit and operate within a variety of platforms.

Before such systems can be fielded, the report argues for a "DOD-wide strategic plan" for directed-energy weapons. It noted that the Navy has developed but not yet released a directed-energy roadmap. Meanwhile, Army and Air Force labs have demonstrated prototype capabilities. Those efforts must be merged, the study recommended: "DOD must develop and promulgate cross-service approaches to [directed-energy] weapons development."

The report also recommends that DOD replace its current "laissez-faire developmental approach" in which "communities of interest" within the Office of the Secretary of Defense pursue directed-energy development on a piecemeal basis.

Along with funding development, a directed energy effort should target "low-hanging fruit" to get demonstration projects into the field as quickly as possible. The Navy's Laser Weapon System deployed aboard the USS Ponce last year is "at the head of the queue," the study noted.

"The continuing development and eventual deployment of more capable [directed energy] weapon systems may diminish operational risk, create improved war-fighting options and ultimately enable new courses of action," the study stressed.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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