Attack at the Speed of Light

Dec. 1, 2002

Within two years, the Air Force will attempt to shoot down a ballistic missile with a laser beam. In about the same amount of time, the Army expects to be well on its way to fielding a vehicle system offering laser defense against rockets, artillery rounds, and cruise missiles, while the Navy will be trying out similar defenses for its ships at sea. Gunships will be flying with experimental tactical lasers by mid-decade, and by the end of the decade, fighter aircraft with laser pods or turrets could be in test flights.

The age of laser weapons has nearly arrived.

When the Administration unveils its Fiscal 2004 budget for the Pentagon in the next few months, expect to see significant increases in money to support near-term deployment of laser systems, some of which will be field operational before 2010. Expect also to see substantial increases in science and technology funding for basic laser research that could enable whole new classes of small laser systems with tactically significant power before 2020.

No science fiction here: Lasers as weapons are in the final stages of development, and plans for their integration into combat forces are proceeding.

“We’ve spent 25 to 30 years developing the technology,” said Col. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, USAF’s program director for the Airborne Laser. “Now is the time for the engineers to take what those smart physicists and scientists have done and put it in the field.”

In the mid-1990s when the Air Force decided to proceed with the Airborne Laser, the other services saw lasers as still in the embryonic stage: good for targeting weapons and as range finders but with little near-term potential as destructive weapons in themselves. That has changed.

The services now expect lasers to become a class of weapon able to deliver a quantum leap in capability, epitomizing the Pentagon buzzword “transformational.”

A Defense Science Board task force conducted a comprehensive review of existing high energy laser programs to determine their promise, the technical challenges they faced, and realistic prospects for their fielding. The conclusion of the task force: Laser technologies have matured to the point that a family of applications is feasible before 2020.

Lasers offer “speed-of-light attack, unique damage mechanisms, greatly enhanced multitarget engagement, and deep magazines, … low cost per shot (or per kill), and reduced logistics footprint,” said the task force in its 230-page report, published in August 2001.

Besides instantaneous attack capacity, a practically unlimited number of inexpensive shots, and the ability to switch targets rapidly, lasers can be tuned to the level of destruction desired–from a little to a lot. Switching lasers for, say, bombs or missiles would also expand the range and time on station of the platform using them. With no heavy ordnance to carry, since light–the medium of destruction–is weightless, aircraft could go farther on the same amount of fuel.

Such weapons offer the US a unique “technological advantage,” one in which the American military is well ahead of any competitor, according to the task force.

The DSB group strongly recommended a funding increase of $150 million a year to aggressively pursue laser technology for both near-term systems and basic research that would enable more widespread applications over the next 20 years.

Anthony J. Tether, the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, agrees that the enabling science of laser weaponry is well in hand.

Tether, in a roundtable discussion with reporters in October, acknowledged that laser weapons are no longer a futuristic technology but one that is being mainstreamed with the armed services. He pointed out that DARPA began working on lasers in the early 1970s and is poised to advance the technology even further.

Tether said efforts are under way to “really allow us to increase the average power output of lasers” and to package them more compactly. Packaging lasers into a size small enough “that a helicopter might be able to carry it” has drawn Army interest, said Tether, since such a laser–in the hundreds of kilowatts class–would be capable of tremendous heating of an object miles away.

“It’ll be a big deal,” he said. The capability is probably five or six years away, but “the Army is so excited about it, they want us to sign up to a [Memorandum of Agreement] right now,” said Tether.

The Catalyst

The Airborne Laser program was a major catalyst driving all the services to get involved in laser weaponry, according to Col. Mark Neice, chief of the Laser Division at the Air Force Research Lab’s Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland AFB, N.M.

“That really focused people on looking at directed energy across the [defense] community and [at] various applications, both strategic and tactical,” Neice said. “That has spawned a lot of the other work we’re doing right now in laser development.”

Deformable optics–a key breakthrough in the ABL program–is one of the chief technological innovations that has made laser weapons possible. The use of deformable optics–a mirror whose face can be altered hundreds of times per second to correct for turbulence in the air–enables the laser emitter to hold a steady, high-quality laser beam on a target, despite the natural air turbulence between the laser emitter and the target.

Beam control systems and special optical coatings have also played an important role in putting, as Pawlikowski said, “photons on target.”

There are three kinds of lasers being prepared for combat duty: chemical, electric, and free-electron lasers.

Chemical lasers–those whose energy comes from the mixing of chemicals, producing a high energy effect–are in hand now and will be the first combat lasers deployed. The Airborne Laser uses a chemical laser, as does the Army’s Tactical High Energy Laser (a ground-based system for use against short-range rockets). Another new chemical system, the Advanced Tactical Laser, will go on AC-130-style gunships.

Chemical lasers offer very high power–in the megawatt range. A drawback is that they require large platforms to haul the large quantity of chemicals needed and the laser modules themselves, as well as the beam control mechanism. The Airborne Laser platform is a specially configured 747 widebody jetliner. The Army’s THEL currently requires three vehicles the size of semitrailers, although it is described as “transportable.” The Advanced Tactical Laser will be housed in a wheeled module that can be loaded into the cargo bay of a C-130-type aircraft.

Electric, or solid-state, lasers, use electricity as their power source. To be small enough to be useful for combat operations, they would be limited to about 25 kilowatts. However, Neice said AFRL has set a goal of five years to develop a 100-kilowatt solid-state laser.

The Air Force has already identified its first potential platform for an electric laser–the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The research lab struck an agreement with Lockheed Martin to explore the possibility for the F-35, although the agreement could extend to other fighters. Neice said the service chose the F-35 initially because both it and the electric laser are still being defined.

“We are looking at this in terms of technology insertion,” he said. “I would love to see it as a Spiral 1” system, or one that would appear on the first F-35s. He admitted it’s too soon to tell if that will happen. The more likely timing for a directed energy weapon on that aircraft will be in Spiral 2 or Spiral 3, said Neice.

Industry officials are even looking beyond fighters now in development. They have a new class of “fotofighter”–small combat jets that would employ laser weapons exclusively–already on the drawing boards.

Fighter aircraft make ideal platforms for solid-state lasers because fighter engines can produce huge amounts of electricity as a by-product of producing huge amounts of thrust.

For the F-35, Lockheed Martin is considering either an internal configuration with the laser beam directed through ports around the perimeter of the airplane, a belly turret, or a pod carried in the weapons bay.

The goal is to develop an “efficient packaging of a laser in the kilowatt class,” Neice said. “It could be a chemical laser, it could be a gas laser, it could a solid-state laser. We tend to lean toward the solid-state laser in that application because there is a big empty shaft bay” in the F-35 that could house a laser weapon system. Also, the engine “produces 27,000 shaft horsepower,” he said, adding, “And that is a tremendous electrical generating device.”

In early versions, these fighter-mounted lasers would be used to spoof or blind incoming missiles, especially those that are heat-seeking or optically guided. Offensively, they could be used against another fighter’s vulnerable spots.

For example, Neice explained, “We could target specific items on an airborne platform to heat up, such as fuel tanks, missiles, flight controls, those types of things, that would render the aircraft incapable of continuing in the fight.”

“We would have the ability to reach out and touch [an aircraft] at a significant distance,” he said, noting that a fighter-sized laser would achieve a hit anywhere between 30 miles and 155 miles away. The range of lasers would be affected by weather conditions and the presence of obscurants, such as smoke or airborne dust.

Neice said the Air Force Research Lab has modified F-16 simulators at the Theater Air Command and Control Facility, also at Kirtland, to begin familiarizing fighter pilots with the capabilities of lasers.

“We’ve been exposing the operational F-16 fighter pilots to the capabilities of directed energy,” he explained. “One of the efforts I’m trying to work right now is to get that included into the curriculum out at the fighter weapons school [at Nellis AFB, Nev.], where I can get America’s best and brightest fighter pilots looking at these capabilities and then helping to develop a concept of operations for use of directed energy weapons in a tactical fighter application.”

Those pilots who have used the laser-capable F-16 simulators are “very excited … when they realize that this capability is something which is within the realm of possibility in 10 years,” he reported, adding, “The time to work on tactics and techniques is right now.” He wants today’s young fighter pilots to “grow up with it a little bit” because those in the fighter weapons school now will be the commanders when the system becomes operational.

“Those are the kinds of guys we need to get energized and enthused on it, so that when that capability comes to them, they’ll know how to use it,” he said.

The third type laser system--free-electron lasers–might be the “dark horse” technology that could be the compact laser weapon of the future, according to the DSB panel. Free-electron lasers use superconducting radio-frequency accelerators to create a tunable beam of electrons. Rapid advancement in superconductivity may make free-electron lasers competitive with or superior to electric, or solid-state, lasers as the technology progresses.

Pawlikowski observed, however, that there are no huge breakthroughs in laser technology expected in the next few years. “I think that laser technology is moving quickly but not at a breakthrough speed at this point,” she said. The technology is undergoing incremental improvements as scientists and engineers refine the state of the art.

A “dramatic breakthrough” in the Chemical Oxygen-Iodide Laser, or COIL, at the heart of the ABL system, might come in the form of a gas-phase laser, but “I would consider that five to eight years down the road,” she added. (A gas-phase version of an iodine laser would employ chemical gases–lighter and easier to transport, maintain, and store than COIL liquids, one of which needs constant refrigeration.)

The Aim of the ABL

The ABL program was launched as a way to shoot down Theater Ballistic Missiles while still in the boost phase of their flight. The idea is to spot and track the missile and focus a high energy laser on its skin, weakening it enough that the dynamic forces of flight cause it to rupture and explode.

The debris of the exploded missile–and its warhead–would fall back on the nation that launched the weapon.

The ABL is slated to shoot down a Scud-type missile during 2004, Pawlikowski noted. The schedule is tight, but she believes the program will get there in time. The ABL aircraft made test flights last summer, with the large nose turret that will house the system optics but without the laser system or optics onboard. Those will be brought on and integrated over the course of the next two years.

The ABL system is being assembled in components, which Pawlikowski said are being built and tested separately before they are integrated on the airplane. She said the “first successful, full-up test of a laser module” took place in January.

“We got 118 percent of the power we expected out of it,” she reported, “so it was a very successful test.”

The ABL is being integrated at Edwards AFB, Calif., which Pawlikowski said is rapidly becoming the center of the universe for ABL and its associated efforts. It is at Edwards that the pieces will all come together, including support systems like chemical storage and draining facilities.

The full-up laser will be installed in the airplane in early 2004 and test-fired on the ground at Edwards, Pawlikowski said. Test flights will begin soon after. During the summer of 2004, test shots will be made against a Scud-like, instrumented target, suspended from a balloon, followed by additional tests to demonstrate tracking ability. If all goes as planned, the ABL will intercept its first missile before the scheduled date of Dec. 31, 2004.

Right now, the ABL is slated to make its first true intercept of a ballistic missile by the end of 2004. However, that date may slip, according to Lt. Gen. Ronald T. Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency.

“This is crunch time for the ABL,” Kadish said at an October discussion with defense writers in Washington, D.C. “Now all the hardware is getting delivered. And when hardware gets delivered, there are all of the inevitable problems; you get things not working as expected.”

Kadish said he won’t have high confidence of a TBM shootdown by the end of 2004 until the all-up ABL aircraft has all its parts, is fully integrated, and starts shooting its laser next spring.

He quickly added, though, that while meeting the schedule is a challenge, “the good news here is … there will be a lot of people showing up at Edwards Air Force Base in Palmdale [Calif.] in the next few days to work intensely on putting [the ABL] together.”

Although initially encouraged to broaden the application of the ABL to other target sets, such as cruise missiles, the program is no longer being asked to do so, Pawlikowski reported.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper “definitely sees the potential of directed energy weapons and has told me repeatedly how important this program is to the future of directed energy and the potential of using this airplane for lots of other things,” Pawlikowski said. “But I believe that the current Air Force position is, ‘Let’s get that first mission down, and then we’ll look at the others,'” she said.

When DOD’s Missile Defense Agency took over the ABL program last year, the focus of the program changed, said Pawlikowski. ABL is seen now as part of national missile defense, not just theater missile defense, which will eventually have strong implications for the number of aircraft built and how they are deployed.

“We are no longer a single-weapon system that essentially stands alone,” she said. “We are part … of a layered approach to missile defense. …We are the air-based, boost-phase component.”

The Bush Administration requested a 25 percent increase in funding for ABL in the Fiscal 2003 budget. Pentagon officials said such an amount would help keep the program on track after funding volatility in previous years. The program is expected to cost $11 billion overall and produce seven operational airplanes in 2010.

Other Potential Combat Lasers

Another Air Force chemical laser venture is the Advanced Tactical Laser, which might appear on AC-130 gunships in just a few years.

“We are building a palletized system that will be mounted inside of a C-130,” Neice said. How the beam would be fired–through an aperture or turret–has yet to be decided.

“We have a test C-130 at Eglin [AFB, Fla.],” he said. “Right now we’re looking at integration of this system in the 2005 time frame and then flight test in the 2006 time frame.”

The program will focus on improving beam quality, reducing the size of the chemical laser, and a quick transition to the field.

Neice said the stated goal from Air Force Special Operations Command is to be able to attack both vehicles and standing structures. “What we’re looking for is an ability to stop a vehicle from moving, … to prevent it from continuing with its intended purpose,” he said. “This is not [about] blowing up a building.”

Against fixed structures, the laser might be used to disable a radio tower, dish antenna, or other building feature to disrupt it from functioning, not to destroy the edifice itself. A moving vehicle might be stopped “either by overheating the engine or burning a hole in the engine–any number of means of stopping the vehicle,” Neice explained.

AFRL’s part of the effort is funded at roughly $10 million over the next four years, he added.

The Army, in cooperation with Israel, has developed THEL as a means of defending against rockets–specifically, the Katyusha rockets that Palestinian guerillas have used to attack border towns in Israel. The system, powered by a chemical laser, has succeeded in shooting down 25 Katyushas in experiments. In early November, THEL shot down an inbound artillery shell.

THEL currently consists of three vehicles. One carries the laser fuel, one houses the tracking and guidance system, and another houses the laser and beam control gear. The Army is hoping to scale the system down to something comparable to the Patriot missile defense system, which consists of smaller separate vehicles for tracking radar and the actual missile launchers.

In 2003, the THEL program will focus on making the equipment suitable for movement by transport aircraft, said a spokesman for TRW, which is building the system, to be known as Mobile THEL, or MTHEL. A version, for use only by the US Army, could be fielded in about 2007.

According to Patrick P. Caruana, TRW vice president and former vice commander of Air Force Space Command, the classes of threats MTHEL could be used against has been broadened. “We are doing the analysis associated with artillery rounds, … [Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles], and also cruise missiles,” he said.

The Navy, which briefly pursued high energy lasers as potential weapons during the days of the Strategic Defense Initiative, has shown renewed interest this past year. In March, Vice Adm. Dennis V. McGinn, the service’s requirements and programs chief, outlined a new concept of operations that will look at high energy lasers as a means to defend against anti-ship cruise missiles and UCAVs.

A Pentagon official said the Navy elected to “jump back in” because it was apparent that technology was advanced enough to make “workable systems that would be suitable for the maritime environment.” At the same time, Navy concerns about ship vulnerability to a mass attack of cruise missiles demanded a response other than Gatling guns and other anti-missile technologies.

The Navy is also evaluating laser systems for use by surfaced submarines. Since nuclear submarines have abundant onboard electrical power, solid-state lasers are favored over chemical lasers, the by-product of which–spent chemicals–would have to be stored until the submarine could put back into port. The advantage of using lasers on board submarines is that they are a munition that would be stealthy, Navy officials reported.

“You can surface, hit a target miles away with a laser, and no one knows you were ever there,” a Pentagon official observed. Ideal would be a system that could be fitted on the sub’s conning tower or periscope, so only a fraction of the vessel would have to be above the waterline to conduct an attack.

The possible naval applications are varied. Ship- and sub-based lasers could breach the skin of an enemy vessel at the waterline, blind its optics, or disable its communications by damaging antennas.

Space Lasers and Beyond

One area that will not see lasers deployed anytime soon is space. Congress drastically cut funding for the Space Based Laser in the Fiscal 2003 budget, and the Bush Administration has elected not to try to pursue the effort for now.

The SBL program was to produce an experimental capability around 2012 but perished from a combination of politics, shifting treaty realities, and technical challenges related to the system. The experiment would have cost “billions to put up, and it would not have offered an operational capability,” according to an industry official closely associated with the effort.

“Also, it was conceived at a time when we were still following the ABM treaty, … and there were opponents in Congress who wanted something in exchange for the increases in other parts of the defense program last year,” he said.

However, the SBL project also faced some huge technical challenges. In its report, the DSB panel said the system envisioned for eventual operational use–a large chemical laser–was expected to weigh in at 80,000 pounds and require a fairing more than 26.4 feet in diameter. The panel observed that no existing rocket could lift such a payload, nor is one even on the books.

Moreover, the SBL would have needed a five- to eightfold increase in power over the proposed experimental version to be operationally useful against ballistic missiles. Given the long list of engineering breakthroughs necessary to make an operational system workable by 2020, the DSB rated the SBL a “high risk” project.

Congress shifted some $30 million from the SBL to the ABL in the Fiscal 2003 budget.

Basing lasers in space holds a lot of appeal because it “solves a lot of the geography problem that we face,” according to Kadish.

However, “as we looked at our priorities and the difficulties of Space Based Laser activity, we decided–collectively with the Congress–that we should put it at the technology stage and not even do the experiment that we were planning,” he said.

In today’s missile defense priorities, “Space Based Laser is a … very promising technology effort,” Kadish asserted. “We will do the technology as aggressively as we can, but it won’t be focused on putting an experiment in space in the near term.”

He reported that the program office for what had been termed the “Integrated Space-Based Experiment” has been disbanded, and its constituent elements will be consolidated under the Airborne Laser project.

Space applications for lasers are not confined to lasers actually in space, however. The Air Force Research Lab is considering lofting into orbit mirrors that could reflect the light of a laser fired from the ground or air toward targets either in space or within the atmosphere. The program is called Evolutionary Aerospace Global Laser Engagement System.

A handheld “death ray” laser will likely not be available to US troops in the foreseeable future, but the advent of smaller and more powerful laser weapons will certainly work a change in how US forces operate.

For the coming decade, “I really see laser weapons becoming truly transformational,” said Caruana. “We’re talking about operations at the speed of light, … about precision in a very focused application of energy, which I believe will give the battlefield commanders opportunities to be very selective in how and what they target.”

Right now, Caruana said, the US “has the right kind of [laser] technology development going.”

“If we stay on that continuum,” what is now the state of the art in the laboratory will become “a little bit more routine” in day-to-day operations, he said.