Base Defense Beats Airborne Strike for Directed-Energy Tests

An Air Force experimentation office is launching an effort to develop laser and microwave weapons that can protect air bases from cruise missiles, such as this Chinese CJ-20 cruise missile mounted on an H-6K bomber, shown Nov. 15, 2018. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Air Force is eyeing a new type of weapon to defend overseas air bases from enemy cruise missiles: directed energy.

Starting in fiscal 2020, the service will vet high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves that can counter cruise missiles as part of its overarching effort to experiment with DE technology and get working systems into the field. Lasers can burn through the body of a missile, while microwaves would fry the internal electronics.

In a fall 2018 request for information, the Air Force also said it wanted to pursue lasers and microwaves for “precision airborne offensive strike and aircraft defense” against surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. But as the service shifts its focus within its DE Flight Plan to hone in on countering unmanned aircraft and securing bases instead of protecting airborne planes, experiments to shape the offensive strike and self-defense missions will be pushed back.

Inside Defense reported Sept. 9 that the Air Force plans to test DE strike and self-protection prototypes from 2021 to 2023. The service wants to field its solutions throughout the 2020s.

“Recent guidance through the [Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability] office and strategic guiding documents such as the Directed Energy Weapons Flight Plan, signed by the secretary and chief of staff of the Air Force in May of 2017, have prioritized the base defense mission,” according to a recent request for information.

The Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office is looking for base-defense prototypes that could be used to further future acquisition programs or that can quickly deploy to “theaters of interest.” SDPE indicated it is considering buying up to 100 systems over two to four years.

The experiment aims to understand how well directed-energy and other types of weapons could defensively work together. Ideally, the weapons would integrate with current missile-defense equipment like target acquisition and engagement radars as well as command-and-control systems.

Each upgradable system must be usable day or night, remain 80 percent mission-capable and always on standby, and operate while stationary or mobile, including from the ground and in austere locations.

USAF did not specify which missiles it has in mind, but said countermeasures should be ready for field testing by late 2020 or early 2021.