7 April 2015
Pentagon should rethink how it develops laser guns, study says
By Dan Lamothe
The Washington Post


The USS Ponce conducts tests of the Office of Naval Research-funded Laser Weapons System (LaWS) while in the Persian Gulf on Nov. 16. (Photo by John F. Williams/U.S. Navy)

When the Navy said last year that it had successfully fired its experimental laser gun while aboard the USS Ponce, it fed curiosity about how soon it could be before “directed energy” weapons could change how U.S. forces fight. But it also underscored something else, according to a new report: The Defense Department’s development of the technology remains uneven, decades after it began.

Those are the findings of a new study released Tuesday by the Center for a New American Security, an independent Washington think tank with strong ties to the current administration. “Directed-Energy Weapons: Promises and Prospects” calls for the Pentagon to establish a new joint directed-energy weapon program office to coordinate efforts and to develop a new Defense Department-wide plan for them.

[Navy demonstrates how its new laser gun works at sea]

“Ultimately, for [directed-energy] weapons to become serious offset candidates — those technologies that enable U.S. forces to maintain battlefield superiority against any adversary — [the Defense Department] must become serious about their development,” said the report, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post. “Their prospective payoff in mission-critical areas warrants focused and sustained senior leader attention.”

The paper was written by Jason D. Ellis, a visiting senior fellow at the think tank who is on leave from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The lab devotes itself to looking for ways that science and engineering can help in national security, and has studied lasers at length.

The weapons include laser guns like the Navy’s, known fully as the Laser Weapon System (LaWS). But directed-energy weapons also include anything else that produces concentrated electromagnetic energy or particles, including microwaves. Examples include the High Energy Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS), which was conceived to be installed on aircraft to protect them from groundfire, and the Active-Denial System, which shoots “pain rays” of directed energy at people as an alternative to taking aim with lethal fire.

This image released by the Defense Advance Projects Research Agency (DARPA) shows an artist’s concept for the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, which would protect aircraft from ground fire. (DARPA image)

Ellis said that presently, directed-energy weapons are a “technological orphan — influenced by many and owned by none.” The Navy’s ship-mounted laser, he adds, is a good example of “low-hanging fruit” that has shown progress and could be fielded more widely in coming years. But on the whole, he argues that the Pentagon needs to push the envelope on directed-energy weapons.

The report also calls for the United States to launch a broad review involving technology experts and military intelligence to determine what other countries are doing with directed energy.

“By 2022, China may overtake the United States in terms of total research and development spending,” the report said. “On the one hand, this suggests that it will become increasingly difficult to develop and sustain competitive advantages in a globalizing marketplace. On the other hand, this provides an opportunity to adopt, learn from or otherwise tap into foreign scientific and technical developments as a way to truncate lengthy and cumbersome weapon development processes.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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