Zap: The Military Wants Space-Based Anti-Missile Lasers

 In Defense, Air, Space

Key point Although once a dream, space-based mis­sile defense is closer to becom­ing a real­i­ty. Is it worth the cost?

Space-based anti-missile laser weapons calls many mil­i­tary pos­si­bil­i­ties to mind. After all, there are already different lasers built, some more often dis­cussed than others. For instance, is well known that lasers are being explored for inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM) defense in space. Moreover, the Missile Defense Agency offi­cials tell The National Interest that weapons devel­op­ers are now work­ing on “power-scaling” laser systems to engineer weapons strong enough to incin­er­ate enemy mis­siles in space. This not only requires range but also power sys­tems suf­fi­cient to gen­er­ate the desired effects. 

This first appeared ear­li­er and is being repub­lished due to reader inter­est.

Where would they fire from? Well that is a fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion which is already receiv­ing a lot of atten­tion. Lasers could at some point fire direct­ly from satel­lites to burn holes in ICBMs either in space, during a begin­ning boost phase or during the terminal phase as it is clos­ing in on a target. 

Also, the Pentagon is devel­op­ing surface ship-fired lasers strong enough to travel out to the bound­aries of the earth’s atmos­phere. Engineers at firms like Booz Allen Hamilton are already doing con­cep­tu­al work on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of build­ing new kinds of hard­ened, space drones or unmanned sys­tems able to travel beyond the earth’s atmos­phere for missile defense, sur­veil­lance or even attack mis­sions. 

Much work still needs to be done, yet ini­tial efforts are begin­ning to show great promise, as many explain that the space envi­ron­ment is highly con­ducive to laser weapons. Lasers travel more effec­tive­ly beyond the earth’s atmosphere and expe­ri­ence less “beam attenuation” or weak­en­ing which can often happen due to weath­er or other obscu­rants oper­at­ing closer to earth. Also, lasers can atten­u­ate at longer ranges, and many beams need to be con­sol­i­dat­ed into a single weapon to gen­er­ate enough power to achieve the desired effect. 

All this being con­sid­ered, there is a lesser known appli­ca­tion fun­da­men­tal to laser weapons which brings sub­stan­tial tac­ti­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties to space war. This is using lasers as opti­cal sen­sors, accord­ing to experts with the Air Force Research Laboratory work­ing on new tech­ni­cal sys­tems. 

“Lasers are super useful as optics in space. We view lasers as foun­da­tion­al to our space archi­tec­ture,” Colonel Eric Felt, Director, Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base. 

Using lasers for opti­cal or surveillance missions brings a number of poten­tial tac­ti­cal advan­tages. Not only do lasers travel at the speed of light but they are scal­able, mean­ing they can be engi­neered to destroy, stun or dis­able. They can also, as Felt explained, be used to detect, sur­veil or even jam enemy weapons, objects and net­works. 

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn pre­vi­ous­ly served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army — Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air mil­i­tary spe­cial­ist at nation­al TV net­works. He has appeared as a guest mil­i­tary expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. This first appeared ear­li­er and is being repub­lished due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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