Pentagon Seeks Next Phase In Laser Weapon Technology

Pentagon Seeks Next Phase In Laser Weapon Technology

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The Pentagon has played around with aircraft armed with lasers in the past, with the most famous recent example being the Air Force’s missile-zapping Boeing 747. Now, they want lasers on something smaller – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

Vice Admiral James Syring, director of the Missile Defence Agency, said that the time is now right to explore weaponized lasers mounted on high-altitude drones. The plan is to see how the technology matures over the next three years.

“We have significantly ramped up our programme in terms of investment and talking about it more of what else needs to be done to mature this capability,” Syring said.

High-altitude UAVs fly at 65,000 feet (19.8 km) or higher, far above the tops of mountains and most inclement weather formations. They can fly for days or even weeks, keeping an eye out on enemy activity, ready to act at a moment’s notice.

For the military, attaining a method of disabling ballistic missiles in their vulnerable boost phase (before they reach full speed, or can deploy decoys or take evasive action) has long been a standing goal. $5 billion and 16 years were spent on building the Airborne Laser, a modified Boeing 747, that shot down a missile in a 2010 test using its chemical laser.

“It proved that this this concept could work,” Syring said. “It proved that, given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude, intercept of a ballistic missile … [at a] wide variety of ranges would theoretically be possible.”

The problem with the Airborne Laser is twofold. One, the short range of the laser required it to be so close to launch sites that it couldn’t avoid detection. Second, to provide a continuous watch there would need to be a whole fleet of 747s, with all the attending refuelling aircraft and jets for protection. To top it all off, the chemical laser used required refuelling after each shot, and its weight is the equivalent of six SUVs.

Pentagon officials are now looking at how laser technology has developed, and where it’s heading. If they can mount a small, powerful laser on a high-altitude drone, they may as well have found the holy grail of missile defence.

“You’re going to need as much power as you can get to destroy as many boosters as you can,” Syring said. “If you can balance that range, altitude, power and number of boosters you need to defeat to help augment our kinetic capability, you’re thinking about the problem exactly right.”