Laser Weapons: It’s Not All Bad News
The March issue of National Defense contained a skeptical assessment of laser weapons that concluded military users have begun to sour on the technology due to development delays and doubts about operational utility. There certainly is basis for doubt, as the Defense Science Board stated in a December 2007 report. Proponents of high-power lasers have repeatedly exaggerated their military potential while under-estimating the difficulties of development.
However, there is another side to the story. Laser weapons really do have revolutionary implications for some facets of warfare, and major progress has been made in some applications. The statement in the article that the airborne laser “does not have much to show for the $4.3 billion that the government has spent since 1994” is much too negative.
New technology typically emerges in fits and starts rather than in a steady, linear fashion. Edison’s search for a durable light bulb is the classic example of the trial-and-error approach to developing new technology, but the fact is that almost all new technologies leave a trail of failed attempts and frustration in their wake before coming to fruition. For example, the basic principles of the Internet were devised in the 1960s, but it was not until the 1990s that the worldwide web began to take off.
So it is with lasers. The first working demonstration of “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” was provided by Theodore Maiman of the Hughes Research Labs in 1960. It took decades before commercial versions of the technology were devised for applications such as fiber networks and scanning DVDs, and it was not until the 1980s that the government mounted a serious effort to build laser weapons.
Some of the government’s efforts, like the Strategic Defense Initiative, failed to yield useful results — although this may have been due as much to political factors as technology. Others have produced usable products, such as the aircraft protection devices that counter heat-seeking missiles and the anti-personnel systems that temporarily “dazzle” the vision of enemies. The ability of high-power lasers to intercept short-range rockets, artillery shells and other fast-moving objects has now been demonstrated dozens of times, proving the relevance of the technology to tactical engagements.
While lasers are not always a cost-effective alternative to conventional “kinetic” weapons, they are distinctly unique. They deliver lethal energy at the speed of light — about 300,000 kilometers per second — and are not subject to physical constraints such as gravity and atmospheric drag. In many applications they cost much less per kill than using missiles or munitions. They also are more precise and more versatile than other weapons. For instance, depending on power levels, the same laser device can be used to destroy a target, nonlethally disable it, or simply track it.
The performance of the airborne laser program needs to be understood against this backdrop. It is true that the program has been delayed several years by technical challenges, and that it consumes more funding than all of the government’s other directed-energy weapons programs combined. But it has made steady progress toward operational status, and will provide revolutionary capabilities when it gets there.
The program has achieved every one of the “knowledge points” set by the Missile Defense Agency. In 2004 it achieved “first light” from its primary chemical laser. In 2005 it accomplished the first flight with its beam-control subsystem, and fired the laser at lethal power levels and durations. In 2006 the beam-control and fire-control subsystems were successfully tested on the ground. In 2007 the same subsystems were successfully tested in flight. In 2008 the entire integrated weapons system was tested on the ground. And in 2009, it will be tested in the air.
The airborne laser is the only missile-defense system currently under development that can intercept ballistic missiles in their most vulnerable stage from hundreds of kilometers away without timely tactical warning and favorable geographic conditions. Weapons like the kinetic energy interceptor and Aegis sea-based defensive system have potential to accomplish the same mission, but not at the speed of light, and not in as wide a range of circumstances as the airborne laser can.
It may turn out to be the only weapon that can successfully destroy ballistic missiles headed for the United States before they release multiple warheads and penetration aids. If the system achieves successful shoot-down of a live target this year it is a huge breakthrough, and if it doesn’t then it deserves to be tested a second time. It doesn’t make sense to spend 15 years and $4.3 billion on a vital capability, and then throw it all away because of one failed test.
The National Defense article was right to signal caution, but the same sorts of reservations have been expressed about every new military technology that ever took a long time to develop, from submarines and bombers to tilt-rotors and stealth. It’s good to have a grasp of their limitations, but it’s also good to have some patience when cutting-edge technology with revolutionary potential is being pursued.
Loren B. Thompson
Lexington InstituteHybrid Car Batteries
I found the February article “Converting U.S. Car Park to Hybrids Should be Priority One” by Michael Frodl and John Manoyan to be dynamic and interesting.
There is one topic that seemed to be missing: the batteries in these cars will eventually need to be disposed of permanently. It may be from old age or car accidents, but in any case, these batteries should be disposed of properly. What are the procedures and related costs associated with discarding these batteries in an environmentally friendly manner? Imagine this on a large scale, when after 30 to 50 years there are as many as 50 percent of the nation’s cars using these batteries. Can and will they be recycled by the car manufacturers?
San Diego, CAThe authors respond:
You raise a good question. Battery disposal is no laughing matter. The day when 50 percent of the U.S. car fleet is hybrid and has batteries is probably a lot less than 50 years away. It’s a problem not just for disposal, but also for first responders. Some fire departments are wary of exposing their workers to hybrid cars that have had accidents and spilled their battery contents. Today’s batteries are not the solution, not just because they are toxic and use exotic heavy metals that can poison first responders as well as the water table (nickel-metal hydride and now even cadmium), but also because their useful life is limited.
Constant draining and recharging lead to their early demise. And they are also prohibitively expensive. A promising work around may be the tweaking of the “good old” lead acid battery so that it might serve on hybrid vehicle. If early findings are confirmed, we might just be able to solve three problems at once: cost of the battery, useful life of the battery and the dangers associated with the battery’s retirement.What About Public Shipyards?
The February article “Navy’s Shipbuilding Strategy Remains Under Fire” made some excellent points. However, it did not mention how U.S. naval shipyards owned by the Navy could help address current problems. In the many articles that I have read regarding the problems of naval shipbuilding, increasing the size of the fleet, cost overruns, inadequate ship capabilities; the one component that is lacking are the accomplishments of government owned shipyards. The construction of naval ships at government owned naval shipyards was terminated when the USS Blue Ridge’s construction was completed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1970. The Navy is being held hostage to contractors demanding and getting excessive fees and awards accompanied by cost overruns. Wouldn’t a government-owned activity staffed by public employees offer a baseline for comparison and competition with the private sector?
As a result of 1967 legislation to end shipbuilding in naval shipyards, the government has lost in-house capabilities to construct warships.
A fresh look at allowing government-owned shipyards to build naval vessels should be considered at the highest levels of government.
Philadelphia, PABetter Ways to Buy Weapons
I read your March article “Message to Weapons Buyers: Make it Cheaper and Faster” with great interest but was very disappointed. The opinions of political appointees and four-star generals are interesting but not based on any real experience with the current acquisition process. I have spent over 35 years in Army program management and acquisition. When there is a problem in developing a system, the Government Accountability Office investigates and recommends more controls. The Defense Department responds. Layers upon layers of contractual and legal oversight are added to the process. Reporting processes are put in place along with large amounts of testing. The result is a procurement nightmare. Your article mentions needing 75 percent solutions rather than 99 percent of the requirement. Do you know what the testers, inspectors general, Defense and Congress would do if a program manager decided to deliver only 75 percent of the requirement? Your article does not mention the issues with rapid developments. There have been many.
They typically suffer from a lack of interoperability/integration and a lack of sustainment. There is no silver bullet. The acquisition system needs to be overhauled so that it has several paths that can respond to different programmatic requirements. We need to be able to field technology faster but it needs to be sustainable and it needs to not be disruptive to fielded capabilities. Also, your article did not address the issue that modern day systems need to work together. We can no longer tolerate stove-pipe developments. However, our budgeting system and our requirements process is stove-piped.
Stanley H. Levine
Sent by e-mail
With regard to your March editorial, “Message to Weapons Buyers: Make it Cheaper and Faster,” I am fully aware of the weight and consequences of government bureaucracy, but I believe some of James Hasik’s points need an additional perspective. In a nutshell, the issue is not simply percent of solution delivered, but quality and reliability as well. During the Vietnam War, 21 out of 22 major weapon systems failed. Just think about the outrage today if guns exploded in the face of soldiers, software kept crashing or Predators indiscriminately bombed targets in Afghanistan.
Also, it is a common mistake to equate acquisition with procurement. However, in practice, acquisition as a process includes the supervision and management of weapon system development. I believe shortcuts in development might have dangerous consequences. On the other hand, the purchase (procurement) of established weapons could be indeed shortened via policy and other, administrative improvements.
The Aerospace Corporation