What could possibly make the F-35 an even more advanced jet fighter? Lasers, according to the U.S. Air Force. The USAF plans, which would put the system into service sometime in the 2020s, will have to clear the same hurdles that have plagued all directed-energy weapons. These weapons have always faced technical and budgetary barriers, which will remain the case, but these cutting-edge systems promise a qualitative advantage over future threats.
Directed-energy weapons (DEW) include several technologies with different characteristics and capabilities. Ranging from non-lethal microwave weapons that can disburse enemy forces or an angry mob, and those that can fry electrical systems in a target area, to high-energy lasers that can shoot down missiles or planes, DEWs offer new military possibilities. Because several of these high-energy laser systems are either in service or nearing service, and because of their potential to transform the battlefield, this article will focus on this type of DEW.
Why DEWs and Why Now?
Why is the time right—or very near to right—for DEWs? Since development began in the 1980s they have promised to be a cheap, long-range, and accurate source of firepower that fires at the speed of light. The technological hurdles are lower than ever, and the first systems have already entered service. As power levels have increased, scientists have moved on from bulky and hazardous chemical-powered lasers to more compact, more reliable solid-state systems that focus energy through a crystalline material. For example, the Laser Weapon System deployed on the USS Ponce is now cleared for use to defend the ship from air and sea threats if it is attacked.
The major hurdle has switched from technology to funding. Booz Allen Hamilton Executive Vice President Trey Obering told The Cipher Brief, “The most significant barrier to directed energy today, however, is funding. In the days of the Airborne Laser Program, we were funding rich and technology poor. Today, we are technology rich and funding poor.” Solving the funding issue means demonstrating a need for the technology, and the threats of the near future are a problem DEWs are uniquely positioned to address.
Ships, airplanes, and ground vehicles are all vulnerable to precision guided missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The former has come into more widespread use, and the latter is becoming more advanced. The UAVs of the near future will have improved artificial intelligence and even swarming technology—which would allow numerous UAVs to mount a coordinated attack. Faced with a large number of incoming targets, a traditional projectile-based defense system could run out of ammunition or succeed only at a cost of thousands of dollars per round in the case of missile systems. A laser has no physical munitions to store and can be fired at less than $1 per shot.
For the U.S. military to confront the Anti-Access Area Denial technologies of the future—advanced missiles and drones designed to offset traditional U.S. military strengths—it needs a qualitative advantage. For example, the Navy could not enforce freedom of navigation in the South China Sea or elsewhere if it cannot ensure the defense of its vessels. If the Navy cannot guarantee access to these waters, it is not fulfilling a key interest for the United States and its allies. The upfront costs required to complete development of DEW systems and put them into service will become easier to manage when their contribution to U.S. strategic interests is clear.
Continued investment into DEWs is needed to realize their long-envisioned potential. Before we see lasers on jet fighters, the technology must be miniaturized without sacrificing power, a task easier said than done. All branches of the armed services can benefit from the variety of applications for DEWs and low operational costs. The U.S. has invested in DEWs for decades and that investment has yielded slow and steady progress. With the benefits to the armed forces clearer than ever, it is no time to lose focus.
Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.