Battlefield Lasers on the Chopping Block
Directed energy weapons have been one of those technologies that are just “five years away” from becoming a reality, but never comes to fruition, said Al Shaffer, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering at the office of the secretary of defense.
“What’s the killer app?” Shaffer asked, when an attendee at the Precision Strike Association conference in Arlington, Va. inquired about the fate of directed energy in the research and development budget.
The “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” strategy released Jan. 5 said that the Defense Department would try to maintain its research and development accounts. “The Department will make every effort to maintain an adequate industrial base and our investment in science and technology,” the document stated.
But there will inevitably be winners and losers in Defense Department R&D as the Pentagon attempts to prioritize where it wants to invest its “seed corn,” as the document described it.
“We have done some marvelous things,” Shaffer said of the military’s directed energy research and development efforts. A 100-kilowatt electric laser, which he described as a “great system” is one example.
“But I don’t think we as a department have figured out what the killer app is yet. It might be protection of forward bases. It might be protection of aircraft. … But what is it we are really trying to achieve? Can we do that affordably?”
Schaffer said this was painful to admit since he was once intimately involved in the high-powered laser field. He helped stand up the high energy laser joint technology office.
“Can you do the mission cheaply another way? That’s the real question,” he added.
One of the most high-profile military directed energy programs was the airborne laser, which was envisioned as a system that could potentially destroy missiles as they were taking off from launch pads. After some 15 years of work, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled the program in 2010 calling it both expensive and unworkable.
Gates at the time said the Defense Department would continue to fund directed energy research, but Shaffer’s statements called that two-year-old commitment into question.
The joint high power solid-state laser program, which Shaffer alluded to, fired a 100-kilowatt beam for five minutes in 2009, according to a Northrop Grumman press release. That was enough to cause damage on the battlefield, the statement said.
Shaffer was reluctant to say which research and development programs would be winners or losers in the run up to the release of the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. However, he did have good things to say about hypersonic technology. That too is a field that always seems five years away from making a real impact. But with a renewed emphasis on anti-access capabilities, its time may have come, he said.
Hypersonic vehicles travel at speeds greater than Mach 5, and achieve this by carrying only its fuel and sucking the oxygen needed to mix with the fuel from the atmosphere. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has conducted two test flights during the past two years. The first was unsuccessful, but the second last for nine minutes before the aircraft was lost. Shaffer deemed that flight a success.
Hypersonic vehicles carrying weapons into contested airspace “would be very difficult for an adversary to counter,” he added.
“We are starting to get some real success,” Shaffer said. “I think in this case, that five years is getting closer and closer.”
One congressional staffer at the conference suggested there would be R&D cuts. It is difficult to find short-term budget reductions in the Defense Department, said House Armed Services Committee staffer Jenness Simler. It takes several years before cuts to major programs and personnel accounts take effect. There isn’t a lot of room to slash operations and management budgets, either. That leaves research and development accounts as easy targets.
Unlike major weapons programs, they often do not have powerful lawmakers in Congress to protect them. “Their constituency is harder to identify,” she said.