WASHINGTON — A panel of experts on Wednesday singled out space-based sensors and directed-energy interceptors as technologies that the U.S. must continue to develop if it intends to stay ahead of the proliferating threat of ballistic and cruise missiles.

Speaking at a Defense News Conference panel titled “Defining the Military Agenda,” uniformed officers and civilian officials from the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Army as well as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conceded that much work remains to be done before high-powered lasers are mature enough to translate into operational capabilities.

“To be able to keep a laser on a target for a certain amount of time is a challenge,” said Col. Joe Capobianco, chief of staff of the U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities Office. “Lasers are maturing to a point that we’re seeing them in the commercial industry. Lasers are out there. But as far as military applications, there’s still work to be done.”

Capobianco noted there are myriad prototypes and demonstrations that have proved promising for future military use, but translating them into operational capability will take time. “Eventually you’ll have a capability that can be put on a major weapon system. Lasers for military applications are coming. … But we’re not seeing it at a maturity level to be a war-fighting capability at this point.”

Retired Col. Fred Kennedy, deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, acknowledged that the advanced research agency has been working lasers for many long years. He said high-powered, solid-state lasers are “clearly on the table,” yet deferred to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, “as to what specific application they want to come out of this.”

Rear Adm. Jon Hill, MDA deputy director, went as far as to characterize lasers as a “game-changer” for missile defense. Nevertheless, he acknowledged it would require “robust investment to get to the power scale and the range we’ll need to reach out far enough and remain lethal.”

According to the MDA deputy, adversarial nations are “moving ahead” with lasers and the U.S. must not lag behind. “We all know cost per kill is very expensive, but if we don’t invest in it, it will remain a problem,” he said. “If you want a solution tomorrow, you must invest today.”

Conversely, space-based sensors — another essential element for modernized missile defense — and the need to protect space assets are starting to receive requisite attention by congressional appropriators and the U.S. government writ large, said Brig. Gen. Mark Baird, director of space programs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. “We’re working in partnership with MDA to make sure we can protect the nation if, God forbid, we’re in a contested event,” Baird said.

Baird told Defense News Conference participants that he was pleased to see “how much attention people are paying” to critical space-based capabilities. “There’s a fundamental shift in how we look at missile defense and space. Space used to be a non-contested domain. It is not now. We have demonstrated capabilities now that make space a war-fighting domain.

“Nobody wants to take a war into space, but as a military — both civilian and those in uniform — we have to be ready to institute a space war-fighting construct and a space enterprise vision.”

Brig. Gen. Tim Lawson, deputy commanding general for operations at the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, said space-based sensors are an essential element for missile defense, which remains a top service modernization priority. “Space-enabling is so critical. When you look at sensors and shooters, they are reliant on space enabling,” Lawson said.

Thomas Karako, senior fellow and head of the Missile Defense Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the space sensor layer has been a critical part of the US national missile defense program for the past five administrations. But only recently, he said, is it moving from talking points on paper to reality.

“If there’s one major muscle movement that we can do across the spectrum from regional defense to homeland defense, it’s tracking from space,” Karako said.

As world attention has turned to North Korea and the intercontinental ballistic missile threat, Karako urged government officials not to neglect shorter-range missiles that threaten regional allies or threats posed by cruise missiles and UAVs.

“As we presumptively rebalance from regional defense to homeland defense, it’s important not to lose sight of the other threats,” he said. “We can’t just be chasing the ball on North Korean ICBMs.”

And as government and industry develop new sensor and shooter capabilities, it’s important to seek new ways of integrating new developments and speeding their deployment in the field, said Tim Cahill, vice president for Integrated Air and Missile Defense Systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “We need to find a way to increase the speed with which we field systems. One way to do this is to look at things differently. In missile defense, it’s important to apply innovation,” Cahill said.

According to the Lockheed Martin executive, too often in missile defense, people focus on getting as close as possible to 100 percent capability before introducing a system to the field.

“When you’re rapidly trying to put capability in the field, it might be OK to field systems with 85 percent capability and follow that with requisite testing and due diligence. Having something that is not quite 100 percent is better than nothing.”

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