Laser Weapons: Technology Evolves but Politically a Tough Sell
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus promised to unveil a new “roadmap” this fall for how the military will acquire and employ electric lasers, microwave and other directed energy weapons.
Touting the recent deployment of a laser weapon aboard a ship at sea and successful tests of an electromagnetic railgun, Mabus said the Navy is poised to “support rapid and efficient acquisition of directed energy weapons.”
That was welcome news to the standing-room-only crowd that filled a huge ballroom in Tysons Corner, Virginia, to hear Mabus and other officials talk about the future of a technology that the military has toyed with for decades and has perennially been “on the cusp” of a major breakthrough.
Champions of directed energy weapons have been galvanized by a string of technical successes in recent years, but recognize they suffer from a credibility deficit. The Navy will keep pushing to get programs funded and to turn lab projects into military-useful systems, Mabus said at the July 28 “Directed Energy Summit” organized by the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
In order to graduate from science experiments to Pentagon “programs of record,” directed energy weapons will need military sponsors and greater support from Congress, Mabus said. Electric lasers and high power microwaves eventually will be used to defend ships, aircraft and ground vehicles from enemy aircraft and missiles, he said. Most significantly, these weapons could be bought at a fraction of the cost of conventional missiles and artillery rounds. An electromagnetic railgun, for instance, costs $25,000 and a laser shot consumes less than a dollar worth of fuel. By comparison, satellite and laser guided missiles cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. Mabus said he is confident the military can produce a lethal 150 kilowatt laser and test it by 2018. That is a tall order as the laser weapon the Navy deployed in 2014 is a 30 kilowatt system.
While laser technology has advanced at a rapid pace, the military will continue to have difficulties packaging the electronics and installing them safely in military vehicles. The limitations of size, weight, power and cooling will be real impediments for years to come, experts said.
There are also considerable political obstacles that could keep laser weapons from transitioning from prototypes to weapons of war.
Support on Capitol Hill is “mixed,” said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., who is co-chair of the Directed Energy Caucus, a group of lawmakers that is seeking to increase awareness and support for the technology.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to explain what the systems are and how they create effects,” said Langevin. Most members and staffs are not ready to embrace this and are not yet sold on the benefits. “It takes time and effort to wrap their heads around the basics of the technology, let alone what the capabilities would mean for future war fighting,” he said. “That’s before you factor in the decades of directed energy being oversold and under-realized. … That’s our biggest enemy.”
Many policy makers like Langevin were once inspired by Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Star Wars” speech when he laid out a plan to deploy lasers in space to defeat Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles. Directed energy weapons had enormous promise that has yet to be fulfilled, he said. “Many people were discouraged because billions were spent and we never realized that vision.”
Today, “we’re further along. Technology is showing maturity,” he said. One day, “the capabilities will speak for themselves.” Langevin encouraged contractors to invest in directed energy research, but understands why some may be losing patience. “There has to be a programmatic light at the end of the tunnel.”
The other co-chair of the Directed Energy Caucus is Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. He lamented that the Pentagon has spent $6 billion on these technologies and has “too little to show for it.”
The good news, he said, is that “We are at an exciting transition point. We have to push harder to get these technologies past the tipping point.” The hundreds of contractors and military officials at the conference were a friendly audience that did not need convincing, but the Pentagon has to do better at persuading skeptics to fund directed energy programs during these times of tightening military budgets.
The potential cost savings of using lasers instead of kinetic weapons could be a powerful selling point, said Lamborn. “Congress pays a lot of attention to anything that saves money.” If the military can produce a beam of directed energy of sufficient intensity to destroy or degrade a missile or shell for 50 cents worth of fuel, that could help drum up support. Naysayers in Congress are not against directed energy per se, he said. “Some members don’t see it as priority.”
Maj. Gen Tom Masiello, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, suggested that past efforts in directed energy systems failed because they were not “operationally relevant.” A chemical laser that the Air Force built in the 1990s to shoot down ballistic missiles is a case in point. Now the military is worried about defending aircraft from small drone attacks and cruise missiles, which could bolster the case to deploy electric lasers aboard fighters and cargo airplanes. AFRL is integrating a solid-state laser into a pod to be fitted in a fighter-size aircraft. The challenges are significant, however, he noted. “The technology has to be operationally relevant, it has to be affordable, there are a lot of policy issues. … We understand the effectiveness of kinetic weapons. We need analytical tools for directed energy.”
Maj. Gen. J.D. Harris Jr., vice commander of Air Force Air Combat Command, said C-130 gunships will be used as flying test platforms for laser guns. “Once we get the size weight and power they could be used for nonlethal and lethal force.”
The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer has been involved with directed energy weapons for nearly 40 years. Since the 1970s, he has heard about the “great promise of instantaneous kill and an unlimited magazine," said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. The reality is that “there’s no magic that will allow us to go faster."
The Pentagon spends about $300 million a year on directed energy technology, said Kendall. “I can’t promise the budget is going to get bigger. But I don’t think it’s going to get smaller.” Key experiments scheduled for the next several years will be decisive, he said. “That’s about the right pace.”
Many policy issues haven't been hashed out yet, he added. “We have a series of demonstrations that will culminate in the next five to six years that will position us to move toward operational weapons,” he said. “We made a lot progress. But we’re not there yet.”
Andrew Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, recalled a conversation he had more than four decades ago with James Schlesinger, secretary of defense during the Nixon and Ford administrations, about directed energy weapons. The secretary called them “interesting toys,” Krepinevich said. The question is whether one day they will break into the mainstream, he asked. “Submarines and torpedoes were once interesting toys until they became deadly weapons during World War I.” The packed ballroom at the directed energy summit, he noted, is one sign that “people believe the time has come.”