WASHINGTON: Ronald Reagan’s dream of lasers that can shoot down incoming missiles is about to become reality — to an extent. The Navy will deploy a low-power prototype to the Persian Gulf this summer and it sees real potential to zap drones, small boats, and anti-ship cruise missiles. But experts assembled at this week’s Atlantic Council conference on missile defense agreed that directed energy weapons are decades from making a dent in much faster and tougher ballistic missiles, which China, North Korea, and Iran all have a-plenty.

“Lasers against a lot of things look pretty cool,” said RAND scholar David Gompert. “Against ballistic missiles, it gets a little bit sportier.”

With so-called solid state laser technology likely to produce 100-kilowatt beams in the near future, “there are some very useful things they can do,” Defense Science Board member Robert Stein told me after the conference. But at realistically achievable power levels, he added, “they are not going to cut a ballistic missile in half or burn a huge hole through it.”

“By the 2030 timeframe, we may see some niche applications of those technologies, mainly for point defense” of military ships or bases, Lawrence Livermore scientist Dean Wilkening told the conference. Against ballistic missiles, however, he said, we’re still going to be dependent on current hit-to-kill technologies that shoot down the incoming missile by crashing an interceptor into it. In fact, Wilkening predicted the biggest improvement would simply be getting the current technology to work consistently. The GBIs now installed at Vandenberg Air Force Base are “essentially a prototype design,” he said. “We’ll see a redesigned GBI in the next 15 years, one that will work well.”

The problem comes down to speed, range, and toughness. A cruise missile is essentially an unmanned aircraft, an armed drone that explodes on its target instead of coming back. A ballistic missile literally rockets into space. The world’s fastest cruise missiles can break the sound barrier, but they’re not what’s called hypersonic, while even a crude ballistic missile like the SCUD moves at the equivalent of Mach 5.

Lasers, of course, move at the speed of light, faster than any physical object can possibly go. But lasers’ targeting systems still have to find the target before they can fire and, afterwards, hold the beam on one precise point for long enough to burn through. The tougher the target, the longer it takes, and a ballistic missile’s warhead rides in a “reentry vehicle” designed to withstand the heat of, well, reentry: If hitting the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound isn’t going to burn it up, your laser isn’t going to, either.

A ballistic missile is much more vulnerable when it’s still attached to a rocket booster full of combustible fuel. You could probably use a .50 caliber machinegun to shoot down a missile in its relatively brief boost phase, Wilkening said, if you could just get close enough. But getting in range of the launch site is the problem: Despite packing a converted 747 with power modules and laser components, the cancelled Airborne Laser (ABL) still couldn’t generate the power to zap a North Korean launch without the very large and relatively slow-moving aircraft getting dangerously close to enemy airspace. And even if you could hit a missile in mid-launch with a laser, Stein told me, there are still plenty of countermeasures an enemy could use, such as buffing the rocket booster to a mirror sheen or spinning it to spread out the beam.

By contrast, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles that fly through the atmosphere move at much lower speeds; they have fuel onboard throughout their flight; and they rely on some kind of sensor to find their target. Just burning out the sensor will often be enough to ensure the missile misses.

But lasers aren’t the only way to blind enemy sensors, noted Stein: electronic warfare, aka jamming, and cyber warfare, aka hacking, might be just as effective, and over much longer ranges. Instead of fixating on shooting down the enemy missile, whether with our own missiles or with laser beams, he said, we need to look at all possible countermeasures as “an integrated package.”


  • Gary Church

    Yeah. It won’t work. But let’s spend billions on it anyway. Why? Easy money and no one is throwing the B.S. flag.

    Bizarre. We should be spending the money on our own missiles. The only explanation is that truly the public is so unaware and uncaring of where their tax dollars are going that it is not even necessary for a weapon to have any possibility of working anymore. Just say it is defense and you can make a fortune putting on a lab coat and playing with a couple welding lasers.


    • bobbymike34

      Wow I actually agree with one aspect of what you are saying we do need more investment in missiles especially offensive strike missiles.
      But then you go off on your rant about money in the defense industry.
      Why is it Gary every weapon system you don’t agree with researching, developing and deploying is some wasteful tool of the defense industry but weapons you support seemingly don’t have those issues.
      By the way wouldn’t lasers on you ‘orbiting battle stations’ make sense? Seeing that space is the perfect medium for their transmission?

      • bobsomm

        Bobbymike, Long ago the major nations enacted a prohibition against weaponizing space.

        We have to prove that some nation is already doing so for us to retain the “High Ground”.

        Regarding this article, I still feel anger toward what was then the BMD regarding an exercise we performed in 1995. This exercise was personally directed by Bill Clinton, POTUS.
        We were given 90 days to establish what our capabilities were at that point in time.
        It is too involved to go into here and certain elements are probably still classified. I was the science advisor for operation “Strong Safety in which we implemented conventional weapons from the existing arsenal and shot down certain rockets and even 155 MM Howitzer shells with no, zero, misses.

        I sent numerous entreaties with video tapes of our successes to BMD but they refused to respond or in any way, consider our successes.
        Back then the 11th Commandment was for program managers to protect the PROGRAM, and what we showed were inexpensive methods that would have saved $millions, if not $Billions and would have arrived at meaningful solutions long ago. The fraud, waste and abuse continued to override threats to the programs that continue
        today to retard success and waste so much time and money. Somewhere out there, I am confident that the videos still exist that show our munitions destroying Katyusha rockets and 155 MM shells with 100% effects at WSMR and China Lake at less than 10% of the costs to use Patriot missiles.
        We were not permitted to use HELSTF to shoot the targets, but did use their 1.6 meter dish and annulus to obtain remarkable live videos of the successes.
        Yes, I am still seething because I know for certain, that there exist ways to do this better, faster cheaper and more effectively. I only hope that our program “LEADERS” get their feces assembled before we are forced to require these protections!

        • bobbymike34

          Actually what the treaty prohibition is nukes in space but I was making a comment directly to Gary Church and his often time comment about space based ‘orbiting battle stations’.

    • Michael Rich

      Well I don’t know, how will lasers grt better without funding? They don’t. It all takes time and money to get this stuff working. Once lasers become powerful enough to take out missiles that is a huge advantage.

    • @notrizzo

      Where did Gary go? I’m guessing either the moderators blocked him or his meds finally kicked in. Just kidding…mostly.

  • Carlton

    Launch your missiles during cloudy, foggy, or rainy weather, and the laser light quickly dissipates and just don’t work.

    • CharleyA

      And neither do some guidance systems/sensors.

  • Bill

    Where do we stand on the rail gun? Doesn’t it have a better chance of success in more inclement scenarios?

    • jgelt

      In theory a rail gun is a good idea. There are a lot of physics obstacles in the way. My information might be a bit out of date, so I’m sure the other commentators will politely correct me on obsolete information. The immense heat produces by firing casues the surface of the interior of the railgun to ablate. At current tech, that means a handful of shots over as many days. The critical missing element of the equation is materials that can handle the physics.

      • StealthFlyer

        jgelt, you are right that reuse of the launcher is a limiting factor (putting an accurate guidance system on the slug that survives firing is another practical issue), but technology development has progressed sufficiently that the Navy will test a railgun at sea on a Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) in 2016.

      • @notrizzo

        The two protype EMRGs use a new, undisclosed, material for the rails that constitute the barrel. My understanding is that rail ablation is not an issue at the 6-10 rpm level. This was one of the development benchmarks that had to be met before seatrials.

    • ycplum

      Not quite as fast as the speed of light. And they also have power requirements restrictions.

  • SS BdM Fuhress ‘Savannah

    Maybe they can get the laser beam to pull along Bee Bee’s with it and those can do some damage?

  • Tom

    Since they’ve learned how to make a laser effective to a range of 50 miles, through the atmosphere, maybe they should consider putting the laser in orbit. Distances higher than 40 miles shouldn’t hurt the effectiveness, and with the ability to shoot through 50 miles of atmosphere, you could hit any target on Earth from a very high orbit.

    • Mike

      Currently radar will show the target, but a laser won’t be able to hit the target if there are clouds between the laser and the target. As I understand it lasers will dissipate in clouds….. It has to be a clear shot to work….

  • JimBobJoe

    An orbital laser could be effective at picking off ballistic missiles in the boost phase when they are slower and more vulnerable. Also, it’s before they could deploy decoys and other counter-measures. Once they rise above the cloud level, it’s a clear shot. The atmosphere is thinner with much less particulates, which is ideal for laser effectiveness. Ballistic missiles have relatively thin and light booster walls, also ideal for a laser because it only has to breach the wall minimally to cause catastrophic failure. They are the easiest thing to target because the rocket plum is ideal for IR detection.

    America used to have a space based laser program, but it was “cancelled” in 2002. :)

    • Mike

      What a shame that those funds went to further screw up the Middle East in a stupid dash for that oil in Iraq…. :(

    • ycplum

      The problem with orbital lasers is that it would be the first target of any attack. Their orbit is predictable (or at least most of them). Also the power would either require a very large satellite/laser platform or a nuclear x-ray laser. Sending dozens of nuclear bombs into orbit possess its own problems. But at the exo-atmospheric regime, I am partial to particle projectors over lasers.

  • @notrizzo

    Interesting that this conference (and the article) primarily addresses intercepting ICBMs, which even the most ardent supporter of Direct Energy Weapons (like me) view as completely unrealistic. As for the USN (the primary developer now) the goal is a cheap and reliable point defense against ASCMs and potentially maneuvering MRBM target vehicles. (It’s important to note that an non-maneuvering ASBM is basically useless since a moving target, such as a CVN, will have moved significantly from the point of a last mid-course guidance until impact. If you are going to target a CVN at sea you need to slow down to allow terminal (internal) guidance and maneuver to impact. That means your warhead is now vulnerable to intercept). The USN (and USA, that is looking for a LaWS to intercept artillery) is taking a crawl, walk, run approach so they can integrate low energy systems now, which are useful vs drones and swam boats, then move up to a 100-200kW system with real AAW capability (and some point defense capability vs un-hardened ASCMs) then hopefully up to a Mega Watt range Free-Electron Laser (FEL) that could intercept everything short the ICBM warheads mentioned above.
    I hate the term “game changer” as they are almost never real, or never live up to they hype, but they, and Laser/DEW systems are going to provide very useful augmentation to existing systems, but we are not going to suddenly be cast into Star Wars.

    • Mike

      While we worry about the swarms of anti ship missiles coming from land based positions, it must give the bad guys some sleepless nights wondering how they are going to stop the swarms of very low flying nuclear tipped Cruise missiles coming from our very quiet attack submarines stationed very invisibly just off their coastlines…..

    • IJMO_DS

      Why can’t a megawatt free electron laser damage an ICBM? Would it need more power, or is targeting the problem? Wouldn’t even a heat shield fail at a certain temperature? Just interested, I’m not an expert.

      • Foton

        There are issues with trying to engage objects which are travelling very fast aside from the laser.

        For a laser to defeat a heat shield is very simple The flux at the spot must be at the vaporization point. If a high enough intensity flux is shined onto a spot the material will vaporize. Even punching one hole through the shield or a deep enough dent, at mach 20 to 26 that ICBM’s will be flying at. It is likely going to cause a catastrophic failure.

        At an ICBM’s speed you’re looking at between 6 to 9 kilometres a second. That means you’re going to need to begin lasing a target easily a 100 kilometres away, just to get that hole which will cause failure. The situation becomes even more exacerbated if you’re dealing with MRV’s. All the sudden you have 8 or more targets you need to lase. Assuming you are only using one laser to engage the targets. You need to engage targets at least 500 kilometres away and have a much higher beam intensity upon engagement to enable yourself to takeout all the targets. The working power of a laser of this magnitude is quite high!

        Lets take a look at something which might be used against a carrier like a Deng-Feng 21. The DF 21 is a MRBM which would be hurtling at a target around mach 10 (3.4 kilometres a second). You would need roughly a 8 megawatt laser to take down a DF 21 and a few prayers. It is feasible to deploy an OPA like this with current technology. However, no one has tried doing this as far as I know. It would also be consideralby more powerful than a 1 megawatt class FEL.

        From what I’ve observed over the last decade. The american contractors which are suppose to be designing affective laser weapon systems, are milking the system. I don’t know when americans are going to demand an actual product? I would strongly suggest not to scrap the work which has already been done. It is possible to field useful weapons right now.

        Consider the following. A laser mounted on a fast moving vehicle can have the same affect as powerful ground or navy based lasers. If a sunburn missile is heading towards a carrier group at mach 3, it doesn’t give as much time to lase the target as say a slow moving tomahawk missle. However, if you have a plane that is flying at mach 2 along the same vector, all the sudden you have the ability to engage that target for a significant amount of time. Assume you can engage the missile 10 kilometres behind and ahead of your aircraft. All the sudden you have almost 1 full minute (~58.82 s) to burn that target down. If you were using a 300 kilowatt laser, you’d be looking at a ship based laser rated in megawatts to deliver the same power. With the plane you have the ability to engage over the horizon 100’s of kilometres away.

        There are tonnes of issues to think of when using any weapon system. I just wanted to show you that there are some limitations right now, as well areas that could be exploited.

        • IJMO_DS

          Thanks for the interesting and detailed reply, I feel I know a bit more about the subject now.

          • Foton

            I guess I did type a bit much. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t increase the length by talking of the threat defeat range.

        • J_kies

          Mr Foton; please refrain from stating nonsense. The ablative heatshields create a gaseous/plasma standoff off the surface both in ordinary reentry and under laser illumination. That standoff is optically thick and any further incident laser illumination merely further heats the plasma without further damaging the heatshield. These effects were shown in parcel tests in the 1970s/80s. Generated power has never been the issue precluding militarily useful lasers.

          • Foton

            I do agree with you that an intense enough light source on a heat shielded object will cause plasma out gassing. In fact this is true of anything which is a solid. The key here is that the plasma jets away from the surface and doesn’t create a permanent bubble of protection. The simple way to understand cutting through material is to have enough flux on the surface to cause ionization. The higher the intensity upon engagement the deeper the cut. One reason for using a pulsed laser is to avoid putting energy into the plasma while it is out gassing.

            Generated power is a fundamental issue of laser weapons. As well lasers in industry.

            There are many issues with laser weapons, efficiency, robustness, optical windows, price, size, cooling, pulse forming, practicality etcetera. The only issue that an expert would have with what I’ve stated to IJMO_DS is when I mentioned an engagement distance of 500 KM. An expert would point out that the beam would no longer be coherent. But there are ways to get around that as well.

  • J_kies

    Perhaps weapon advocates could invest some time in the library –
    The US had megawatt class lasers in the Alpha laser used with the SLBD and the gain modules on the Airborne Laser. The problem is that the operations of those lasers ate the beam director telescopes in seconds of operations (in the desert or at high altitude). What ‘genius’ felt that ships subject to green water over the bow could ever manage pristine optics for combat conditions as are necessary for a viable laser weapon?

    Even megawatt lasers with meter-class adaptive optics are not viable weapons against inbound ASBMs so why does the topic mention “Missile Defense”?

  • Truth_in_Defense

    Robert Stein is apparently unaware of how much more powerful that solid state laser weapons can be than a mere 100 kilowatts. Try multiple thousands. And they exist already. And the defenses he alludes to against them…mirrors…would add far too much weight to a missile…and spinning would destroy any accuracy ….and the new laser capability could still defeat BOTH of his antiqiuities.

  • awfiof

    fulz jm

  • Richard Vert

    I think the thing to do is to use more of that black project money making the world a better place to live. People be less likely to want to screw it all up then.