Magazine article National Defense

Lasers Could Become Cost Effective Missile Defense Weapons

Magazine article National Defense

Lasers Could Become Cost Effective Missile Defense Weapons

Article excerpt

The U.S. military invests more money than any other country to maintain technological superiority, but its expensive high-tech defenses are increasingly countered by the proliferation of relatively cheap but effective weapons like cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft.

Without a more efficient and cost-effective method of knocking enemy munitions from the sky, the United States risks losing future conflicts with peer competitors that wield capable yet inexpensive munitions, experts agreed.

A new set of weapons straight out of Star Wars that cost dollars or pennies to fire could flip the price-per-shot equation in favor of the United States. When facing enemies with ballistic missiles and integrated air defense systems, the most economical way to counter incoming barrages could be blasting them out of the sky with concentrated beams of directed energy, said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

"As we look to the future toward potentially more contested operational environments where our enemies have precision defenses ... that can drive us to need to use more [precision-guided munitions]," Gunzinger, said at a recent forum on directed energy weapons hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute.

"Let's face it, we're upside down in this cost-imposition calculus," he added. Fielding directed energy weapons "would help reverse the trend we see today ... where the Navy has to spend more and more and more to defend the fleet at the expense of its offensive punch."

Despite its promise for cheap, high-rate shipboard missile defense, spending on solid-state laser research-and-development has remained relatively flat since fiscal year 2011 when it was at a high of about $400 million. The overall budget for laser programs has since fallen to $350 million.

Lasers and other directed energy weapons can reverse the trend in favor of the United States because they cost next to nothing to fire and have almost limitless magazines, said Ronald O'Rourke, specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

The Navy fires expensive munitions at targets--be they incoming missiles, small attack craft or shore defenses--that cost the enemy comparatively little if destroyed, O'Rourke said during the Marshall Institute panel.

"That is not an affordable game. If you were to continue it with large numbers of engagements, you would quickly find that you are on the wrong side of that equation economically."

Another advantage is the deep magazine that electrically powered lasers would allow aboard ships.

"Even if you are shooting at small boats and UAVs, [lasers] can help you reserve your higher cost weapons that you have aboard in fixed or finite numbers for the kinds of targets that really need those weapons," O'Rourke said.

Unlike a missile that simply explodes on impact, lasers offer effects other than blowing threats out of the sky. The systems allow commanders to choose from a menu of graduated lethality that gives them tactical flexibility, O'Rourke said.

All the services have their own directed energy roadmaps outlining development and operational plans. The Air Force in 2007 tested a chemical oxygen-iodine airborne laser mounted on a Boeing 747-400F intended for use against tactical ballistic missiles. Funding was cut in 2010, followed by cancelation the next year at the behest of then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The Navy is interested in electrically powered lasers that can draw power from existing shipboard power grids. Though generally more potent, service officials have turned away from chemically generated lasers that would require ships to stock a new, potentially caustic, fuel source.

The free-electron laser, for example, offers potential for scaling up to megawatt-class power levels, O'Rourke said. But the technology to achieve that capability is less developed than solid-state lasers. …

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