Recent dramatic advances in solid-state laser technology (meaning lasers that create a lethal beam of light using solids or fibers, not liquids or gases) have yielded impressive power levels at a very low cost-per-shot, especially when compared to traditional missile interceptors that can cost over $10 million each. Experts in the U.S. Navy state that within six years, using technologies already developed and demonstrated in test firings, they could field solid-state lasers on warships with sufficient power to counter anti-ship cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft, and fast-attack “swarm” craft like those of Iran. These lasers could reduce the need for warships to carry bulky—and expensive—defensive munitions, while freeing space for other weaponry.
Like solid-state lasers, new chemical lasers can generate much greater power outputs than their predecessors, enabling them to engage a wide range of air and missile threats, including long-range ballistic missiles. Also within six years, and using technologies developed for the Airborne Laser, the Air Force and the Army could field ground-based, megawatt-class chemical lasers to help protect key bases in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific.
To be sure, laser weapons have limitations. Bad weather reduces their effectiveness (as it does many other weapons), and killing very hard targets such as ballistic missile warheads will require multiple megawatts of laser power. But combined with suppression attacks and traditional defenses, high-power lasers could provide a major boost to our military’s defenses and at a reduced cost, while also complicating an enemy’s planning.
Other states—especially Russia and China—see the game-changing potential of these weapons and are investing aggressively in them. Yet the Pentagon plans to cut research funding in this area, even though it currently invests a little over $500 million in it annually, compared to well over $10 billion in traditional air and missile defenses. This imbalance is particularly worrisome considering the need to impose costs on our competitors while reducing our own costs.
The Defense Department has said that it is serious about retaining its technological edge, declaring in its new strategic guidance the “imperative to sustain key streams of innovation that may provide significant long-term payoffs.” Unfortunately, absent a push from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta or from Congress, it appears unlikely that high-power lasers will make the jump from the laboratory to the field anytime soon. If not, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, American forces will find themselves again reacting to a threat rather than anticipating it.