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The Laser Revolution: This Time It May Be Real

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

US Navy photo

The Navy’s Laser Weapons System (LaWS) aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf

TYSON’S CORNER: New laser technology looks promising as a way to shoot down Chinese-style massed missiles. But laser projects have overpromised and underdelivered for decades, from Reagan’s Star Wars in the eighties to the Airborne Laser, canceled in 2011. Now proponents must convince the skeptics — particularly in Congress — that this time is different.

“Right now on Capitol Hill,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, co-chair of the Congressional Directed Energy Caucus, “I’d characterize the support of directed energy programs as mixed, but I would say it’s getting stronger as the technologies mature.”

“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to explain,” Langevin added. “Heaven forbid some physics is involved.” But that’s not the biggest problem advocates have, he said: “Decades of directed energy being oversold and under-realized — that’s probably our biggest enemy.”

“Since 1960 we have spent more than $6 billion on directed energy, yet until very recently we’ve had too little to show for it.” Rep. Doug Lamborn, Langevin’s co-chair, told today’s directed energy summit. But now, “we are at an exciting transition point where we can actually meet COCOM [combatant commander] requirements in the near- and mid-term.”

“We still have a long way to go to raise awareness of how far directed energy has come even in the past few years,” Lamborn continued. “Directed energy has strong bipartisan support in Congress, but there is some opposition….Everyone’s competing for that dollar.”

The Defense Department currently spends about $300 million a year on directed energy projects, but that’s all research, development, and demonstrations: There are no programs of record. “I can’t promise you that’s going to get bigger, but I don’t think it’s going to get much smaller,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics.

Kendall’s personal history shows both “how far we have come and also how far we have not come,” he told the conference. He’s dealt with directed energy on and off for 40 years, starting when he was a young captain in the Army’s Air Defense Artillery and wrote a paper on this promising new technology. He’s lived through Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and the Airborne Laser — but this time, he thinks, lasers really are becoming reality.

That’s not an easy case to make. “DE was right around the corner in 1976. It was right around the corner in 1986. It was right around the corner in 1996, and now there’s a gunshy-ness,” retired Lt. Gen. Trey Obering said, “but there truly have been some remarkable breakthroughs.”

Obering, now with summit sponsor Booz-Allen Hamilton, headed the Missile Defense Agency in the latter days of the Airborne Laser. What went wrong with ABL, Obering told me, was a fixation on the technology at the expense of the tactics. “It became all about, ‘can we do it?’ and not ‘what should we then do to make this operationally deployable?'” he said.

Today, by contrast, Obering said, technologies are moving out of the lab into operational units, notably the Navy’s 30-kilowatt laser on the USS Ponce. Rather than “wait for the perfect answer,” he said, “we’re beginning to get stuff out there that could have some military utility that you can begin to get feedback and begin to get the warfighter conversation going.” That way, he added, as the program matures, “the warfighter is not only willing to accept it, they feel comfortable with it.”

Such real-world, hands-on testing also builds political support in Congress. “I frequently point to the work the US Navy is doing on directed energy on the USS Ponce,” said Rep. Langevin. “Not only is it a R&D platform, but it’s something that’s operational.”

The Navy’s 30-kilowatt weapon is currently the only operational laser in the US military that can blow things up. (Targeting lasers and non-lethal “dazzlers” are commonplace). But other weapons are in the works.

Air Force Special Operations Command wants to put a high-powered laser into a future version of its AC-130 gunship. “Block 60 with the laser, that’s not 10 years out; Block 60 is a couple years out,” said AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold.

The Air Force Research Laboratory plans to put a medium-powered laser — big enough to shoot incoming missiles and blind enemy sensors, but not to destroy aircraft — in a pod small enough to fit on a fighter. That project should do a demonstration by 2020, AFRL commander Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello said. There’s no clear date for a fielded system, however.

“There’s a lot of stink over directed energy [having] overpromised, underdelivered,” Masiello said. “So we’ve built a program…with a realistic technology maturation schedule. You heard the warfighters this morning, they want it faster, they want it now. But… in these initial stages, we’re crawl-walk-run.”

On land, the Army is test-firing a truck-mounted High Energy Laser Demonstrator, while the Marines are working on a Humvee-mounted model of the Navy’s 30-kilowatt weapon. Relatively low-powered lasers have real utility for ground troops since they worry most about relatively short-range and fragile threats like artillery rockets and mortar rounds.

The Navy, meanwhile, plans to test a 100 to 150 kilowatt laser at sea by 2018 — more than three times the power of the weapon on Ponce — and to establish a formal program of record for lasers in its 2018 budget. Both proposals are being worked on by a Naval Directed Energy Steering Group established by the technophile Navy Secretary, Ray Mabus.

“The main thing is to have a focus on this as a cohesive whole instead of a program here, a program there,” Mabus said at the conference. “We’re looking at all directed energy weapons here and how do they fit into the Navy.”

“That’s the biggest change, is to get everybody in the same place,” Mabus continued. “In that group it’s not just the R&D folks, not just the S&T folks, and not just the acquisition folks, and not just the requirements people, but also people from the fleet, the warfighters.”

That way the Navy can quickly match up laboratory supply with warfighter demand — or decide to stop pursuing a technology if the fleet doesn’t actually want it.

The demand for laser weapons from real-world commanders is arguably the biggest difference between the present day and past efforts.

“When I first went to the [Missile Defense] Agency in 2001, the warfighters didn’t have their arms around missile defense at all, I mean, not all,” Obering told me. “We would attempt to try to model some of the forthcoming missile defense capabilities like Aegis, etc. in some of the COCOM exercises, and they just weren’t interested…. They didn’t believe in it. Well, that has changed 180 degrees today.”

The difference is the threat. In 1991, the US showed the world what precision weapons could do. China in particular paid close attention. “A fear I’ve had even since then was what’s going to happen when the other side has precision weapons too,” said Kendall. “We’re basically at that point.”

China has poured investment into large numbers of accurate missiles, Kendall said. But they aren’t alone. Russia, Iran, and North Korea are also building up their arsenals. Even non-state groups could combine off-the-shelf camera drones with precision-guided rockets or mortars to lethal effect.

“The problems that we’re facing are the very problems that directed energy systems had been envisioned as addressing for a long time, and particularly precision missiles, cruise and ballistic,” Kendall said. “The work that this community does has become much more important.”

But can we get that work done and in the field in a reasonable amount of time?

“There’s a roadmap for directed energy that has several different technologies moving forward to demonstrations by about the next five years,” Kendall told reporters after his public remarks. “I think that’s laid out at about the right pace.”

“”We can point to the progress that’s been made to date, [but] there’s still a lot of risk,” he said. “The reason we have multiple [technology] approaches is because there’s a fair amount of risk, but if we don’t make the attempt, we certainly aren’t going to get there.”


Edited 10:15 pm to add Masiello comment.

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