One might imagine that using a beam of light as a weapon is a recent military development, but the practice may date back more than 2,000 years. Legend has it that Archimedes, a Greek mathematician and engineer, used mirrors to direct the sun’s rays at approaching enemy ships to try to set their sails on fire. Today, high-energy laser and high-power microwave systems—or “directed energy” weapons, which use focused electromagnetic energy—have been shown to work and could combat a variety of emerging threats, but more investment is needed to bring them into the hands of our warfighters more quickly to protect the American people.
With the Pentagon’s long-anticipated Missile Defense Review expected to be released soon, it is important for government and defense decision-makers to understand directed energy’s applications for missile defense. Directed energy weapons reach targets at the speed of light, and have much larger magazines, cost less per shot, and track targets with precision far beyond traditional kinetic weapons. These characteristics make directed energy weapons uniquely capable of combating threats from hypersonic missiles (missiles that can fly at more than five times the speed of sound), as well as from the ballistic missile defense challenges from countries like North Korea dominating the headlines over the past several months. High-energy lasers, for example, could destroy a missile by burning through critical structures, control surfaces, and/or control systems, causing the missile to structurally fail or become uncontrollable.
Investing in offensive hypersonic capabilities and hypersonic missile defense is a top priority for the Department of Defense (DoD), according to the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Dr. Michael Griffin. It’s also a priority for other world powers. Our adversaries are developing hypersonic weapons and maneuvering missiles that threaten the United States’ ability to project power. Most immediately, foreign adversaries like China and Russia pose a threat to the Navy’s carrier battle groups and entire surface fleet, in addition to forward-deployed and land-based forces. As detailed in the updated National Security and National Defense Strategies, the Trump Administration is reemphasizing the imperative of military dominance—not mere parity—to protect the American people from adversaries who are developing new offensive capabilities.
The reality, however, is that the DoD has been underinvesting in many of the military’s defense capabilities over the past 10 years, including directed energy and hypersonic weapons. Compounding the problem are some disappointing facts about our defense acquisition system: Back in March, Dr. Griffin revealed during a keynote presentation that the Pentagon takes approximately 16.5 years to acquire new technologies and bring them from statement of need to deployment, with many layers of unnecessary costs as well as delays. This is simply unacceptable.
The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 increases defense discretionary funding by $80 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 and by $85 billion in FY 2019, opening the door for the United States to implement strategies for renewed dominance. However, Congressional appropriators, the Department of Defense, and industry partners will need to act decisively to fund and deliver needed capabilities. The United States should invest $2 billion to $3 billion annually to develop the directed energy technologies and weapons needed to counter the threats the nation faces.
I had the privilege of serving as the director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) when the United States began the deployment of the successful missile defense systems we rely upon today. The MDA enjoyed the funding support of both the Bush Administration and Congress, and had the authority to execute outside of the DoD acquisition system in developing and deploying missile defense. That flexibility was key to rapidly developing and fielding missile defense systems to meet the emerging threat. The development and deployment of directed energy weapons to meet today’s emerging threats will take similar flexibility and empowerment.
Dr. Griffin has confirmed that DoD’s top policy priority is restoring speed to the acquisition system. We all need to help him.
In order to more quickly develop and field directed energy capabilities, we must take a few immediate next steps. First, we must begin to address operational considerations, such as test simulation, training approaches and infrastructure, how directed energy weapons will be used on the battlefield, and how they’ll be integrated with existing command and control systems. Second, industry and academia must continue the momentum in building awareness of directed energy’s capabilities, which supports decision-makers in advocating on behalf of warfighters. Third, we must educate warfighters about what these weapons can offer and make prototypes available for them to test.
Giving thought to these areas now will ensure fielding directed energy weapons is not hindered when systems are ready. These efforts will also build the warfighters’ trust that these weapons will perform in combat, as they have been told and as they have seen in training.
Directed energy weapons are not the answer to all of our challenges, and they will not replace kinetic weapons, but they are essential to countering specific threats and providing dominance across land, air, sea, and space. The only question in my mind is whether the United States will achieve that dominance before an adversary does.
The next generation of missile defense should not be a small evolution. It needs to be a revolution. I am more confident today than I have been in a long time about our defense and security posture. But for that confidence to be realized, the nation must rise to the task. The combination of the Trump Administration’s strategy, DoD’s vision and leadership, Congressional action, maturing technology, and a ready and able domestic industrial base will enable us to do so. It is not an option; it is imperative.
Henry “Trey” Obering, III is a Booz Allen Hamilton Executive Vice President based in McLean, Virginia. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a Lieutenant General with more than 35 years of experience in space and defense systems development, integration, and operations.