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Weapons Procurement 

Military May Be Souring On Laser Weapons 

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By Grace V. Jean with Additional Reporting By Sandra I. Erwin 

The Pentagon’s enthusiasm for laser weapons is not what it used to be.

Disappointing technical performance, competing budget priorities and uncertainty about the military’s future missions could jeopardize funding for laser weapon programs in the years ahead, experts say.

Just a year ago, the Pentagon’s science advisors warned that a lack of progress in the development of directed-energy weapons has resulted in a significant decline in interest and support for these technologies. The panel of advisors, known as the Defense Science Board, pointed out that not a single directed energy system has been fielded to date, and that there are fewer programs currently under way than there were a decade ago.

One of the toughest technical challenges is producing lasers with enough lethal energy to surpass conventionally powered weapons, says Philip Coyle, a senior advisor at the Center for Defense Information and a former director of weapons testing at the Pentagon. “It’s really hard to beat the amount of energy in a rifle bullet, let alone even more powerful weapons systems,” he says. To do so with a laser requires a large and heavy system that is not conducive to the rigors of the battlefield.

Military laboratories and contractors have spent decades trying to boost the power in laser systems while trying to pare down the package, with limited success.
“It’s not easy and nobody has really succeeded yet,” says Coyle.

Some contractors who have long been developing such systems insist they are making progress. To them, the debate isn’t about whether directed energy weapons will become a reality, but when.

Lasers abound in civilian industries. But most of those systems operate at energy levels that are inadequate for weaponization. “The fragility of the industrial base for directed energy is very real,” says Mike Rinn, vice president and program director at The Boeing Co.

Boeing is the prime contractor for the Missile Defense Agency’s airborne laser, a megawatt-class chemical laser that is intended to shoot down ballistic missiles from a modified Boeing 747 aircraft. It requires unique components and materials to deal with intense concentrations of energy and laser light, says Rinn. “You’re dealing with millions of watts of power, and the materials want to heat up,” he says. “If they heat up, they can distort the beam.”

In order to destroy a ballistic missile with a laser, the system must generate high power over extended periods and it requires specialized technologies to control the beam, handle the heat and cool down the laser. Such components have a hard time performing outside a controlled laboratory environment, says Doug Beason, author of “The E-Bomb” and a former deputy director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s directed energy directorate.

Boeing has been working with Mitsubishi Industries and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to determine whether any Japanese technologies might help in the development of the program. A study identified several areas, including solid-state lasers, sensors and composite materials, that have potential.  

The airborne laser, however, could soon be on the chopping block. It has experienced significant delays and does not have much to show for the $4.3 billion that the U.S. government has spent since 1994.

This year’s funding is being used to test and refine the system, which is expected to shoot down a ballistic missile for the first time in a crucial demonstration this summer. 

“As impressive as that will be if they can do it, it still doesn’t show that a real missile is going to stop in mid-flight,” says Coyle. The team has a long way to go to prove that the laser not only can hit the missile, but also hit it in the right place to destroy it. “It would be just terrible if the mock enemy missile kept right on going. That would be the death knell for the program,” he adds.

More than that, the possible demise of the program could impact other weapons systems under development.

“There’s so much money going into the airborne laser, that if it doesn’t work, then it’s going to sour people’s view of directed energy,” says Beason.

If the Defense Department gives up on the airborne laser, companies speculate it would delay directed energy weapons programs such as tactical lasers, some of which are just reaching fruition.

Raytheon Co. this year plans to demonstrate that a 50-kilowatt laser can destroy mortars and rockets. “It should show that the off-the-shelf fiber lasers have military utility on the battlefield now,” says Mike Booen, vice president of advanced missile defense and directed energy. The company also is promoting a directed energy countermeasure system for helicopters that uses a low-power laser to disrupt shoulder-fired missiles.

Boeing in January announced that one of its laser systems that was installed on an Avenger combat vehicle had successfully shown that it could hit and destroy small unmanned aerial vehicles. The laser Avenger locked on to three small UAVs and tracked them in flight against a background of mountains and desert. The laser system then fired at, hit and destroyed one of the UAVs, according to Boeing.

But these isolated efforts may not be enough to generate the political and financial support that would be required to accelerate the technology from the lab into the field.

“The amount of money the government is pouring into this technology base — on the order of about a quarter of a billion dollars a year — is not enough to produce the huge technological gains to be able to field these things quickly,” Beason says.

He suggests that a national effort to coordinate directed energy research and technology is needed. “There has been talk of having a directed energy czar who could coordinate all the technology and research, to make sure that the necessary technology base is being supported. That might be the way to go,” he says.

The Pentagon will have a tough time funding directed energy programs if it can’t convince Congress that these technologies work.

“To be worth buying, these systems have to be shown to be operationally effective on the battlefield,” says Coyle.

In the case of the airborne laser, Congress has mandated an independent assessment of its testing and also is requiring the defense secretary to certify the program’s viability before it funds a second aircraft. That has caused some consternation for the program’s development team, which is worried that the few vendors who supply key components for the laser will disappear if there is a long gap between the first and second aircraft. “We’re concerned the high-energy laser industrial base will go away. Reconstituting the industrial base down the road would be very difficult, if not impossible,” Boeing writes in response to questions from National Defense.

Other directed energy programs will likely have to clear similar hurdles.

“You really have to fight your way onto the battlefield,” says Booen. “If you want to use a laser to do something that could be just as easily done with a Molotov cocktail or a 500-pound bomb, then you’re going to have a tough time selling that.”

If the Defense Department wants to energize its laser weapons programs, it should make more deliberate attempts to explain how they would be used in combat, and how they would compare in performance with conventional kinetic systems, says the Defense Science Board. The panel also recommends that the Pentagon increase science and technology funding for high-power solid-state lasers and improved beam-control devices.
Reader Comments

Re: Military May Be Souring On Laser Weapons

Airborne Laser true value will not be shooting down North Korean missiles. It will be best used to shoot down S400 SAMS in Iran. You send in a decoy drone, shoot down some SAMS, then the [enemies] sends up their old F14A. Zap goes their F14s.

Brian on 03/03/2009 at 23:37

Re: Military May Be Souring On Laser Weapons

A single nuclear weapon launched on a ballistic missile would cause HUNDREDS of billions of dollars of damage and probably trillions in wealth as the global stock market collapsed. Defense spending is cheap at about 3.5% of GDP (not including war supplementals) and ABL is a TINY part of the defense budget. With the TRILLION dollar stimulas anybody who says we can't afford defense is to put it simply a liar.

bobbymike on 03/03/2009 at 02:19

Re: Military May Be Souring On Laser Weapons

On the contrary, al, high tech weapons like the ABL are meant for use against adversaries with ICBMs or at least IRBMs. Gotta be fairly high tech to have any of those...and a Molotov cocktail or 500 lb bomb isn't going to do much against a fast-rising rocket from hundreds of miles away...

Coyle says they have a long way to go to prove they can destroy a real missile. Of course they do! But they have testing planned for this. Sounds like he wants instant results, and you can't get those from complicated systems. It takes years of work.

DoctorJ on 02/26/2009 at 16:27

Re: Military May Be Souring On Laser Weapons

High tech weapons can be cost effective only against a high tech enemy. It's a lesson I thought we learned in 'Nam. Since Iraq and Afghanistan don't even an air force, we should be spending money on bullets and bombs, and put the fear of God in them.

al on 02/14/2009 at 15:26

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