Former MDA Director: Space-Based Lasers are Coming Sooner Than You Think

Retired Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering, former Missile Defense Agency director and a current Booz Allen Hamilton executive vice president (left) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), right, appear at the fourth annual Defense One Tech Summit on June 27, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Marcus Weisgerber/Defense One.?

There may be clear divisions between the political parties in many areas of defense, but missile defense—once a highly divisive issue—is now an area of common interest and concern, said Sen. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn).

“The big story here is how little division there is between the parties on these issues,” Cooper said. “The President’s Budget requested $11.4 billion for missile defense and the Democratic-led Housed Armed Services Committee is giving $11.3 billion.”

But as for which technologies hold the greatest promise, Cooper was more circumspect: “We want what works,” he said, before adding that among directed energy options, Congress seems to favor lasers, while Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin favors neutral particle beams.

Either way, the US research and industrial base for such technologies is not what it could be. Promising progress on hypersonics and other interceptor technologies that progressed in the 1980s under the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars” at the time, was abandoned after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“In the ’80s we had 10,000 people devoted to hypersonics,” Cooper said during the Defense One Tech Summit in Washington. “Today it’s 600. A lot of that precious knowledge has not been transmitted, and other nations have stolen the march as we were distracted by terrorist threats. We need to make sure that we become dominant, and I think there’s still time to do that.”

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency and now an executive vice president and directed energy lead with Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, agreed. Sharing the stage with Cooper, he said directed energy technology is critical for future defenses, both to protect against rogue nations trying to distract or disrupt US activities, and to deter peer threats vying for superiority in space and other domains.

Lasers hold the most promise and are critical for their speed in a world where future defenses will have to contend with maneuverable hypersonic threats. Trying to shoot down a bullet with a bullet is hard enough, he said. Using a kinetic weapon to destroy a hypersonic threat that can alter its course is a far greater problem. But lasers don’t have to anticipate a target’s direction. “People tend to think of these things as like a laser pointer or a flashlight,” he later told Air Force Magazine in an interview. “Actually, it’s more like a blowtorch” that burns through its targets. And because it’s operating at the speed of light, it’s as close to instantaneous as a weapon can be.”

Recent advances mean lasers are now “finally catching up with the promise,” Obering said. “Ten years ago I could not say I saw a path toward a space-based, or even an airborne laser weapon,” he said. “But today, I can see that from the technology emerging from our industry as well as the National Labs.”

Obering said lasers could be deployed in space within five to 10 years of fielding, providing critical defenses not just against rogue threats—which Cooper emphasized—but also against peer threats vying for superiority in space.

“Space is just like any other domain—land, sea, or air,” Obering said. “We’ve got to be able to protect our critical lines of communication in space. We’ve got to be able to protect our assets in space. Many Americans don’t realize how much we are dependent on space, even for our basic economy.”

America’s dominant position in space is not a guarantee of future dominance, Cooper emphasized. While the United States has essentially provided global navigation, positioning, and timing as a gift to the world, and continues to monitor and track space junk as a similarly free service, the cost of deploying satellites and even weapons in space is falling rapidly.

“For the time being we are space dominant,” Cooper said. “We need to keep that dominance.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on July 1, 2019, to reflect the correct title of retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering. He is an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and directed energy lead.