China and Russia have developed unprecedented arsenals of precision-guided missiles and UAVs designed to overwhelm our military’s defenses, just as Russia is now doing in Ukraine. The sheer scale of these threats means that traditional kinetic systems like Patriot missile batteries will not have the capacity to defend U.S. forces operating in harm’s way. Integrating non-kinetic, directed-energy systems like high-energy lasers with kinetic defenses will be essential to defeating these threats.
DE systems are already capable against UAVs, artillery and rockets, and they are reaching power levels needed to counter cruise missiles. Delays in creating and fully funding DE acquisition programs risks the U.S. military falling behind in another critical technology, leaving it without a game-changing means to defeat attacks that prevent them from generating decisive combat power in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe.
The Air Force Research Laboratory’s DEKE DEUCE war game demonstrated how DE systems combined with kinetic defenses will be key to defending U.S. air bases from missile attacks. Likewise, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday has defined DE as nothing less than the Navy’s future. This year, the Navy will fit an Arleigh Burke destroyer with the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance, or HELIOS, alongside its Aegis missile defense system. HELIOS will increase the destroyer’s capacity to counter UAVs, fast-attack craft and other globally proliferated threats.
While a good start, DE defenses must become a wider-spread reality. Our military’s ability to defend the homeland by defeating aggression overseas require them to operate within range of overwhelming numbers of armed UAVs and precision-guided missiles. Are they ready for this? No, but they can be if the services integrate DE systems throughout their forces. The benefits are too significant to ignore.
First, since DE weapons like lasers are powered by electricity, they do not require large, complex supply chains like those needed to reload missile batteries. This can greatly increase our military’s capacity to counter threats and free it from logistical tails that limit their ability to generate combat power forward, especially units that must operate within range of an enemy’s missiles. These tails include large, sophisticated facilities to maintain stores of surface-to-air missiles and other kinetic weapons. Since electrically powered DE systems do not need similar facilities, incorporating them into the force would reduce our military’s footprint that can be targeted by an enemy. Moreover, pairing DE with a mobile energy source, such as the one envisioned by the Army’s Project Pele, would make them near-infinitely renewable resources that make our forces far more resilient.
Second, DE weapons will alter the cost curve since they can counter incoming air and missile threats at far less cost than kinetic options. Defeating threats for the few dollars — literally — that it takes to generate electricity to power a laser “shot” compares well with kinetic interceptors that cost millions each. DE is an especially affordable means to defeat low-cost threats like small UAVs. In 2020, the Department of Defense requested $11.3 billion for tactical missiles; any reduction in missile procurement could produce significant savings.
Third, workable DE solutions will reduce personnel costs since fewer people are needed to operate and sustain them compared to kinetic weapons. The DoD’s cost to recruit, train and maintain highly qualified military personnel currently knows only one vector: up. Developing a more lethal force with a smaller personnel footprint will help free resources to modernize the DoD’s aging weapon systems.
DE efforts underway within the DoD include the Army’s Mobile Short Range Air Defense system, or M-SHORAD, that integrates a laser and sensors onto a Stryker vehicle. While a good effort, the Army should integrate M-SHORAD with its air and missile defense battle command system. Plus, while the 50-kilowatt-class lasers scheduled for Strykers may be enough to defeat small drones, dramatically higher-power lasers are needed for cruise missiles and other higher-end threats. This is critical for Army forces defending forward bases that are vulnerable to China’s voluminous missile salvos. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has said addressing missile attacks on the service’s Indo-Pacific air bases is a top priority.
These higher-power lasers are well within reach. There are now essentially two laser technologies competing to transition to weapon systems.
One approach combines multiple small-fiber laser amplifiers — similar in appearance to strands of fiber-optic cables — to create a single laser beam.
A second design takes a “distributed gain” approach that simultaneously pumps light through a large number of sheets of “laser gain” material to create a laser beam. The distributed gain approach promises to scale laser defenses to the higher powers needed to defeat a broader array of threats, including cruise missiles.
Using either laser system with the Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System to shoot down incoming missiles — that’s 21st century warfare. No projectiles. No resupply.
The DoD and Congress should invest in DE capabilities while maximizing already proven systems, just as they are doing with hypersonic weapon technologies. However, unlike hypersonic weapons, the DoD can steal a march on China by being the first to widely field game-changing DE systems. Military history reminds us of the dire consequences of allowing our enemies to beat us to the punch — and those consequences could be existential in a peer conflict.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Mark Gunzinger is the director for future concepts and capability assessments at the Mitchell Institute. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for forces transformation and resources within the policy office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.