It sounds more like a fixture in a science fiction film than something you'd find on the Pentagon's budgetary requests, but the proposal for Fiscal Year 2020's budget includes a $304 million request for funding for a program to develop directed energy weapons that can be deployed in space as a next-generation missile defense system, Defense One reported Thursday.
The problem is, these weapons don't exist right now. That means that first the Pentagon must demonstrate that such a weapon is possible before it can even begin to develop a device usable for missile defense, something it's requested $15 million and six months of time to do. The MIssile Defense Agency (MDA) hopes to have a working weapon in orbit by 2023.
Such a weapon has been built before, and even tested: in 1989, an experiment called BEAR — Beam Accelerator Aboard a Rocket — successfully fired a neutral particle beam into space as part of the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an attempt to get a leg-up in the Cold War with the USSR by building a space-based missile defense system.
"The 24-foot, 3,500-pound beam accelerator was launched to an altitude of 125 miles on a Minuteman 2 rocket," the Los Angeles Times reported after the July 1989 test. The device, which fired a neutral particle beam into space for four minutes, is now owned by the Smithsonian.
The Times explained how the weapon worked: "The accelerator creates an energized beam of hydrogen atoms carrying no electrical charge. SDI scientists explained that the beam is created by powerful accelerators propelling negative atoms that are stripped of their extra electron as the beam emerges from the device at nearly the speed of light… the beam does not burn through metal but rather penetrates the warhead and then releases its energy."
"We've come a long way in terms of the technology we use today to where a full, all-up system wouldn't be the size of three of these conference rooms, right? We now believe we can get it down to a package that we can put on as part of a payload to be placed on orbit," a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday, Defense One reported. "Power generation, beam formation, the accelerometer that's required to get there and what it takes to neutralize that beam, that capability has been matured, and there are technologies that we can use today to miniaturize."
"I can't say that it is going to be at a space and weight requirement that's going to actually be feasible, but we're pushing forward with the prototyping and demo," the official said, noting the exploration "means we need to understand as a Department, the costs and what it would take to go do that. There's a lot of folklore… that says it's either crazy expensive or that it's free. It needs to be a definitive study."
"The addition of the neutral particle beam effort will design, develop and conduct a feasibility demonstration for a space-based Directed Energy Intercept layer. This future system will offer new kill options for the [Ballistic Missile Defense System] and adds another layer of protection for the homeland," according to a Tuesday MDA document obtained by Defense One, which noted the "new kill options" refers to targeting missiles as they leave the launch pad instead of intercepting them once they leave the atmosphere.
"That's a really hard battle space to go after, right?" the Pentagon official told Defense One. "It's a very short timeline, first to even know where it [meaning the missile] is coming from… It's less than a couple minutes before it leaves the atmosphere. So you have to have a weapon that's on station, that's not going to be taken out by air batteries, and so we have been looking at directed energy applications for that. But you have to scale up power to that megawatt class. You've got to reduce the weight. You've got to have a power source. It's a challenge, technically."
Sputnik reported last November on the enthusiasm shown for energy-based weapons by US Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. At the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) that month, he said the Department of Defense was pursuing "a renewed emphasis on laser scaling [meaning scaling up the power of lasers] across several technologies," an emphasis that would be reflected in upcoming budgets, he said.
"In my opinion, we are no more than a few years away from having laser weapons of military utility," Griffin told CSIS, noting that the present level of development of the technology was "within a factor of two or three of being useful on a battlefield, airplane or ship."
"We need to have 100-kilowatt-class weapons on Army theater vehicles. We need to have 300-kilowatt-class weapons on Air Force tankers," Griffin said, Military Times reported at the time. "We need to have megawatt-class directed energy weapons in space for space defense. These are things we can do over the next decade if we can maintain our focus."
However, space-based weapons raise more than a couple of eyebrows, even if they're not weapons of mass destruction, which are explicitly banned by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.
China and Russia have repeatedly introduced draft treaties on banning all weapons in outer space, Sputnik reported. In 2014, the US rejected the draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) on the grounds that it was "fundamentally flawed" for not covering ground-based weapons, Space News reported at the time.