“There’s great interest in … airborne capabilities for the counter-cruise missile [mission],” Kelly Hammett, director of directed energy work at the US Air Force Research Laboratory, said at the Association of Old Crows electronic warfare conference earlier this week. Navy officials also indicated that mounting lasers on their ships that are powerful enough to take out cruise missiles is one of the service’s main goals.
Sputnik previously reported how eager the Navy is to place lasers on ships: beginning with low-powered ones that can aid in targeting, but eventually ramping up their power output to the point they can cause critical harm to flying objects.
Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, who heads the surface warfare directorate for the Chief of Naval Operations, told Defense News this past May that “the key” for the Navy is the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS), a directed energy weapon with a 5-mile range that Boxall wants on a destroyer by 2021. With a present output of 60 kilowatts, the laser will hopefully be quickly boosted to at least 500 kilowatts.
Indeed, HELIOS is just one of several Pentagon programs aiming to develop solid-state lasers. Others include the Ruggedized High Energy Laser (RHEL); the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN); the Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) effort; and the High Energy Laser Counter-ASCM Program (HELCAP), a computer model for shooting down anti-ship cruise missiles.
Since 2017, the US Department of Defense has more than doubled funding for directed energy weapons, reaching $1.1 billion last year.
The Pentagon’s rush to equip its war machines with anti-missile lasers reflects the priorities of what it calls “near-peer rivals” - Russia and China - which have used missiles as their go-to tool for closing the gap with the US military. China’s People’s Liberation Army takes missiles so seriously it’s got a special branch of the military dedicated to them: the Rocket Force (PLARF).
In recent years, China has not only touted an intermediate-range anti-ship ballistic missile, it’s also tested an air-launched ballistic missile, a novelty abandoned by the US and Soviet Union early in the Cold War when intercontinental ballistic missiles became more viable, but which has been revived by Chinese engineers as away to further diversify their nuclear arsenal in pursuit of a true nuclear triad.
The PLARF also sports an array of anti-ship missiles with ranges much longer than comparative weapons in the US arsenal.
Robert Haddick, a former US Marine Corps officer and visiting senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies who is also an adviser to the US Special Operations Command, lamented to Reuters earlier this year that “a very big gap” exists between US and Chinese anti-ship missile capabilities.
Likewise, both Russia and China have pushed far ahead of the US in developing hypersonic missiles, which present the same problem as cruise missiles: they don’t follow parabolic arcs like ballistic missiles do; they fly through the atmosphere, sometimes close to the ground, and can maneuver.
While the US has dedicated no small effort to intercepting ballistic missiles - developing air defense systems like the Patriot, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), and Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD) - weaponry for shooting down atmospheric missiles is far less advanced. US surface ships sport the close-in weapons system (CIWS) and Rolling Airframe Missile, both of which intercept missiles during their final seconds of flight, but for longer-range intercepts, options are limited.
In the late 2000s, Raytheon attempted to develop an anti-ballistic missile variant of the plane-launched AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air-Missile (AMRAAM) in conjunction with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), but that project, known as the Network Centric Airborne Defense Element (NCADE), fell by the wayside. In a 2017 report on missile defense, the Heritage Foundation think tank advised the MDA to “reinvigorate concepts” like the NCADE.
However, with an expected range of only 5 miles, the HELIOS still couldn’t handle the kind of swarming attacks recently seen used against Saudi Aramco oil facilities. That’s where a mobile laser system comes in handy.
“If you sit at home plate and have 10 runners coming in simultaneously and you try to tag them all out, that’s not probably the winning solution,” Hammett said, according to Breaking Defense. “You want to get forward… with an airborne platform.”
Frank Peterkin, a senior scientist at the Office of Naval Research, cautioned at the Association of Old Crows conference that lasers present a unique problem as interceptors because of their need to fix on a single point for an extended period of time in order to burn through it.
“We need to understand those targets better,” Peterkin said, “because the advantage of a laser weapon is precision, and the disadvantage of a laser weapon is precision.”
Breaking Defense notes that the problem becomes “particularly acute” when the target is a cruise missile, which already has a reinforced nose cone to protect it from the intense heat of supersonic atmospheric flight. The really vulnerable spots of the projectile - which you would want to target to render it incapable of flying - aren’t likely to be in the front, either.