U.S. Missile Defense Agency returns to laser development


The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has regained control over the research and development of lasers to defend against ballistic and hypersonic threats.

U.S. President Joe Biden on December 27, 2021, signed into law the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which gave the authority back to the MDA and reversed a decision by the previous U.S. administration to halt the agency’s laser-interceptor research.

The NDAA sets funding levels and provides policy guidance for the Department of Defense.

The secretary of defense is now required to delegate to the MDA director the authority to “budget for, direct and manage directed-energy programs applicable for ballistic and hypersonic missile-defense mission in coordination with other directed energy efforts of the Department of Defense,” according to NDAA.

Researchers have long viewed lasers as a more cost-effective alternative than missile interceptors, according to a June 16, 2021, story by the website Defense One. Still, the technology has not moved out of the research and development phases, Defense One said.

“I think what you’re seeing is a desire by Congress to make sure that … work is … translated into some missile defense-relevant programs,” Tom Karako, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Defense News website in a December 30, 2021, story.

Riki Ellison, head of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA), said it is the MDA’s job to develop the laser technology.

“They’ve done it before, and at a huge magnitude with a huge budget, and created a system that … with a chemical laser shot down a missile,” Ellison told Defense News. “Some of the optics and the technology from that effort we are still using.”

Ellison is referring to the MDA’s Airborne Laser program, according to Defense News. In 2010, its Airborne Laser Test Bed — a modified Boeing 747 — successfully destroyed a short-range ballistic missile. The program was mothballed in 2012 after cost overruns and technical challenges. (Pictured: The Airborne Laser Test Bed aircraft destroyed a short-range ballistic missile.)

The MDA then turned its focus to “laser scaling,” which the Arms Control Association defines as “lowering the ratio of size, weight and power.” A low-power demonstration was planned for 2021 to determine the feasibility of destroying missiles in the vulnerable “boost phase” of flight, but that effort was derailed by funding cuts, according to Defense News. The MDA’s long-term goal, at the time, was to deploy lasers on high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aerial vehicles, Defense News said.

Congress, in the NDAA, also authorized additional funding for directed-energy research and development, which one analyst called significant.

“Directed energy can help us address cruise and ballistic missiles in a potentially more cost effective way than ground-based interceptors,” Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation said during a December 16 virtual roundtable discussion hosted by the MDAA.

Meanwhile, other branches of the U.S. military made some progress with laser technology in 2021, according to Defense News.

The U.S. Army successfully demonstrated a 50-kilowatt laser on a Stryker combat vehicle for short-range defense. And Lockheed Martin delivered to the Air Force the Airborne High Energy Laser, which will be integrated into its AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, while the U.S. Navy recently destroyed a floating target in a shipborne laser test in the Middle East.



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