Laser weapons: The future is now
Military needs and laser- system capabilities have found a significant common ground.
Military needs and laser- system capabilities have found a significant common ground. If this opportunity is missed, it may be a long time before tactical laser weapons become an integral part of the U.S. defense inventory.
For more than 30 years, a significant focus of the government’s defense science and technology program has been on the development of lasers with the power and wavefront, or beam quality, needed for eventual “beam weapons” applications. While there have been a few “near misses,” to date no high-energy laser (HEL) research and development effort has resulted in a fielded weapon. The promise of lasers as weapons has continued to outshine reality, leading to an overused, but valid conclusion: lasers are the weapons of the future, and they always will be.
In my opinion, the root causes for the failure of HELs to become a part of the military’s weapon-system inventory are many, but they are not insurmountable. In fact, I believe that a confluence of user needs, system capabilities, and technological revolution has created a near-term opportunity for success. For tactical HEL weapons, I submit, the future is now.
An incomplete list of past HEL research and development projects-from major studies through technology and system demonstrations-reads like alphabet soup: MTU, ALL (SLTDP), SRAT, MRAT, MIRACL/SLBD, ABLE, GBFELTIE, SBL, and so on.* Each of these projects, in its time, had the potential to shift the prevailing conventional weapons paradigm from total reliance on kinetic systems to at least a mixed force. They failed for a variety of reasons, but several common themes are apparent:
Overpromise, underdeliver. This is likely an inescapable feature of an untested capability (HELs) trying to join a club dominated by the “good ole boys” (kinetic systems). Complementing an existing capability isn’t sufficient-the new guy has to be significantly better than the competition.
Intracommunity warfare. In tight fiscal environments or when supporters are few, we are sometimes driven to technological “civil” war, preferring to undermine the “other” laser concept rather than to join forces to better show where and how lasers compete with or complement conventional weapons. In other words, we “circle the wagons and fire inward.”
“Better” is the enemy of “good enough.” There is always a better laser solution just over the horizon-shorter wavelength, more efficient, fewer “bad” fuels, and so on-and the promise of the next capability confuses the eventual user and softens the commitment of the funding agency.
What has changed and why is the future for laser weapons now? For perhaps the first time, HEL system capabilities, operational needs, and affordability have found a unique and common ground. User/operator needs have been brought into clearer focus through the evolution of tactical urban operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The salient features of tactical HELs-high precision at modest range (approximately 10 to 15 km), rapid response, low collateral damage, managed effects (from lethal to nonlethal)-offer a unique capability to the joint warfighter. Technologies, especially in the rapidly evolving development of weapons-class solid-state lasers (about 100 kW), but also in materials and processing, promise useful performance and possibly lower development costs necessary for near-term laser-weapon realization. Finally, high-power optical relays will enable the use of entry-level ground-based laser systems across a range of missions, from forward-operating-base air and perimeter defense to persistent surveillance countering the proliferation of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Significant barriers to near-term success remain. The most prominent are moving technology solutions from laboratory demonstrations to field validation, with hardware, software, and operational concepts readily traceable to fielded systems; improving and validating the developer’s and the user’s understanding of the “real” vulnerability of likely target sets to achievable tactical lasers; and, possibly most significantly, addressing and resolving government policy issues that can impact future use of tactical beam weapons.
A necessary condition for early deployment of tactical HEL weapons is as obvious as it is straightforward: field the first system and let the user explore and expand the range of applications in ways the technologist or developer could never imagine. As part of this condition for future success, the tactical HEL weapon system must be capable of being fully integrated into the warfighter’s operational environment. And, finally, no hangar queens allowed. Any weapon system, no matter how unique a capability it offers, must be available to the user when needed. High reliability, with demonstrated and supported logistics tails, will encourage the further growth and deployment of these radically different weapons.
Although high-energy laser technologies have been near the top of the Defense Department’s science and technology investment portfolio for many years, past attempts to spin this technology out of the laboratories and into the tactical weapons inventory have fallen short. But now military needs and laser-system capabilities have found a significant common ground. If this opportunity is missed, it may be a long time before tactical laser weapons become an integral part of the U.S. defense inventory.
*Mobile Test Unit (MTU); Airborne Laser Laboratory (ALL); Special Laser Technology Development Program (SLTDP); Short Range Applied Technology (SRAT); Medium Range Applied Technology (MRAT); Mid-Infrared Advanced (or ARPA) Chemical Laser (MIRACL/SeaLight Beam Director (SLBD); Airborne Laser Experiment (ABLE); Ground Based Free Electron Laser Technology Integration Experiment (GBFELTIE); Space Based Laser (SBL)