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See the light on laser weapons, think tank urges

True, the Pentagon hasn't yet gotten the hoped-for payoff from its R&D on directed-energy weapons. But there's always tomorrow.

Maritime Laser Demonstrator
This is the proof-of-concept Maritime Laser Demonstrator from the Office of Naval Research
U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

Laser weapons haven't exactly lit the world on fire yet. And that's a big part of what's holding them back.

That's one of the main conclusions of a new report, "Changing the Game: the Promise of Directed-Energy Weapons," just out from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C., think tank focused on national security and military matters.

The report comes at a low ebb in the enthusiasm for directed-energy weapons -- futuristic gear that produces "a beam of concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic or subatomic particles." That includes not just laser weapons, but also devices using high-powered microwaves. In fiscal 2011, the report says, spending on high-energy laser and high-power microwave programs amounted to just over $500 million, a tiny fraction of the funding for kinetic missile defense programs including the Aegis and Patriot systems.

A case in point: The Pentagon earlier this year finally shut down one of its most high-profile prototyping efforts, the Airborne Laser, a modified 747 packed to the gills with the fixings for a megawatt-class chemical-based laser. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described it as too complex, too expensive, and possessed of a "highly questionable" operational role.

"Previous high-profile DE programs failed to deliver on promises of game-changing capabilities," the authors of the study write. "These failures have increased the U.S. military's reluctance to adopt a new generation of DE weapons concepts that are based on significantly more mature technology."

Which would be a shame, the authors say, because directed energy is a "particularly promising source of operational advantage for the U.S. military" in defending against attacks -- by fast attack seacraft; armed unmanned aircraft; and missiles, rockets, artillery, and the like -- because of the unique attributes of such weapons: "the ability to create precise, tailorable effects against multiple targets near-instantaneously and at a very low cost per shot."

But rather than look at directed-energy weapons as an end in themselves, the Pentagon should see them as part of a larger defensive posture that also ties in traditional kinetic weapons -- that is, those that hit enemy targets, rather than zapping them.

And forget chemical lasers. The future is solid state.

"Because of their potential to overcome the size, weight, and magazine depth challenges posed by current technology chemical lasers, new electrically powered, solid-state lasers (SSLs) may be the most promising alternatives for laser weapons that can be mounted on large mobile platforms such as surface naval vessels," the report says. "It may also be feasible in the mid term to develop high-power microwave (HPM) emitters carried by aircraft or cruise missiles that could degrade, damage, or destroy the electronic hardware that enables enemy anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats."

That "mid term" is the next five to 10 years. In the longer term -- that is, 10 to 20 years out -- the report says "it is expected that technological advances will continue to reduce the volume, weight, and cooling requirements of high-power SSLs, creating opportunities to integrate them into small aircraft and tactical ground vehicles. By the late 2020s, it may also be possible to develop ship-based free electron lasers (FELs) with power outputs sufficient to interdict more hardened targets, including ballistic-missile reentry vehicles."

More immediately, though, the report acknowledges rather quietly that there's some housekeeping work to be done on just how effective laser weapons can be against their natural enemies of dust, humidity, and other atmospheric riff-raff that make the battlefield a much harder proving ground than the laboratory.