The Navy’s “Laser Weapon System” (LaWS) prototype aboard ship.
Why so confident? I asked Meyer, himself a veteran of the Airborne Laser program cancelled in 2012, after his remarks to a small
Technologically, as in so many other areas, commercial industry is leading the way: “I can buy lasers for welding, for cutting, [etc.],” Meyer told me. “There are thousands of these systems out in industry applications all over the world.”
In fact, the Navy’s “laser weapon system” (LaWS) is basically just six commercial welding lasers “strapped together,”
LaWS also embodies the more modest and yet more urgent missions the military now envisions for lasers. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative envisioned a belt of satellites to shoot down Soviet warheads in space. The enormous flying airborne laser focused on shooting down a few ballistic missiles — say, a North Korean strike — shortly after launch, when warhead and rocket booster are still attached in one large, combustible target. The ABL technology actually worked, said Meyer, but the equipment and chemical power supply filled a converted 747, and the military felt the vulnerable aircraft would be easily shot down before it got into laser range.
By contrast, both the Navy LaWS and the Army’s “mobile high-energy laser demonstrator” are relatively small solid-state lasers, able to fit on a ship and a truck respectively. They’re also designed to fire over relatively short distances at targets much slower and less durable than a ballistic missile, targets such as small drones, fast-attack boats, precision-guided mortar rounds, tactical rockets, or — at the high end — anti-ship cruise missiles.
Meyer agrees. In future conflicts, “I am going to have mortar rounds or cruise missiles or UAVs coming in,” he told me. “We will be absorbing G-RAMM [guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles]. We either have to take it out or we have to suffer the losses.”
That’s the urgent but achievable mission driving the
These power levels can take out cruise missiles, drones, and manned aircraft at ranges of a few miles. Longer ranges would require hundreds of kilowatts, however, and killing a ballistic missile in boost phase would take about a thousand kilowatts — one megawatt or more. An ICBM warhead, designed to survive the heat of reentry, is practically laser-proof.
So the lasers likely to be fielded in the early 2020s will be modest self-defense systems, one part of a larger array of countermeasures ranging from Patriot-style anti-missile missiles to electronic jamming, cyberwarfare, and simple preemptive strikes. “Directed energy is a complement to existing kinetic capabilities,” Meyer emphasized to the
Precisely because they’re not supposed to be superweapons, however, they’re also more achievable. Speaking alongside Meyer this morning was the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s
When Gunzinger and his CSBA colleagues started exploring laser weaponry three years ago, he said, they expected that technological problems would be the major limiting factor: “We came out of that study saying, mmm, it really might be more [about] resources.” And given the current pressure on the defense budget, resources are just going to get tighter.
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