US Navy will prototype many sizes and types of combat lasers and missile defense wants laser on long endurance stratospheric drone by 2025

The Navy and Missile Defense Agency are leveraging prototyping programs to incrementally pursue complex ideas such as a laser weapon integrated into the Aegis Combat System and a high-power laser for boost-phase kill in missile defense, officials said today at the 2017 Directed Energy Summit.

This ability to learn through prototypes and experiments has always been resident in the MDA but is new for the Navy. The Navy recently created a Surface Navy Laser Weapon System program as its very first Rapid Prototyping, Experimentation and Demonstration (RPED) project, which allows the service to put new technologies in the field, learn lessons early to reduce risk, and decide whether and how to proceed before spending too much money, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), said at the summit, cohosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The US Navy rapid prototyping project is pursuing multiple lines of effort under the umbrella of the Surface Navy Laser Weapons System program: researchers are looking at improving the laser itself through increased power, increased beam quality and the ability to “modularize,” and at the same time learning how to integrate laser weapons available today into the Aegis Combat Systems.

MDA’s current interest in directed energy would be putting a boost-phase kill capability on an unmanned aerial vehicle that could provide persistent missile defense capability from high altitudes. The technical challenges to achieving that are many, but MDA’s incremental approach has already yielded some important lessons learned.

“What we really need is an air vehicle that is carrying a precision tracker that can track the target, understand what it’s doing in that boost and ascent phase, move that data to the kill laser, and then we lase it, and we’ve got to be on it with high beam quality and very stable beam so we can actually accumulate the energy to take it out. That’s the game that we’re in at the Missile Defense Agency,” Hill said during his presentation. To achieve that, “we want really high power so we have standoff range, so we don’t always have to be directly over enemy territory in order to take out a boosting missile. We want to be light so we can fit on an air vehicle. And we want to be able to control our beam.”

MDA is encouraging industry to innovate in the UAV design itself – while there are many current designs on the market, MDA needs an aircraft with great endurance, and one that can operate in the stratosphere. This will be included in an upcoming demonstration with three companies that touches on power, beam quality and the feasibility of operating a laser kill system from a UAV.

In the near term, Hill said MDA would also be pursuing advances in passive target acquisition, active track and handover, and beam stability at operational ranges, and exploring how the laser beam moves at high altitudes.

The MDA Advanced Technology Program Executive Office develops new system concepts and key components to ensure the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) keeps pace with the continually evolving ballistic missile threat. The advanced technology effort is focused on developing and demonstrating the next generation of technology that will give us the capability to intercept across the battle space, discriminate in all phases of the kill chain, and reduce the number of interceptors required to defeat a raid.

Discrimination Technology: Our near-term goal is to add high altitude airborne or space based electro optical sensors into the BMDS architecture that can acquire, track and discriminate ballistic missile targets. The Agency is developing and testing these sensors on-board unmanned aerial vehicles already deployed in the field today.
Directed Energy: Our overall vision is to shift the calculus of our potential adversaries by introducing directed energy into the BMDS architecture. This will revolutionize missile defense, dramatically reducing, if not eliminating, the role of interceptors. Additionally, the Agency is exploring two promising, high energy laser candidates, the Diode Pumped Alkali Laser system and the Fiber Combining Laser system using a system of engineering knowledge points to measure progress. In the 2025 time frame, our goal is to integrate a compact, efficient, high power laser into a high altitude, long endurance aircraft capable of carrying that laser and destroying targets in the boost phase.
Kill Vehicle Common Technology: The Kill Vehicle Common Technology effort focuses on identifying and maturing advanced technology common to kill vehicles operating outside the earth’s atmosphere. This effort’s objective is to enhance the performance of existing and future BMDS interceptors while broadening the supplier and vendor base.