Pentagon Eyes Airborne Lasers for Missile Defense

high-energy laser

The U.S. Defense Department recently began testing a laser that might someday be affixed to drones to knock incoming missiles out of the sky.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, nominated by the Obama administration to replace Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he agrees with Navy Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, on the need for the military to develop ways to thwart ballistic missiles earlier in flight, possibly with lasers.

“Current capabilities are limited to denial in the mid-course and beyond phases; we need to look for solutions across the entire ballistic missile kill chain,” Dunford said in written remarks submitted as part of his confirmation hearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The science shows a ballistic missile is comparatively easy to detect and track while boosting.”

He added, “Further, countermeasures on a missile, such as decoys designed to distract defensive systems, are not typically deployed until after the booster burns out. As such, boost-phase intercept is an attractive missile defense alternative.”

Dunford said he would support more funding to develop a boost-phase airborne laser weapon system for missile defense in the next decade, “but only if operationally, technically and economically practical. The current budget supports pursuit of a laser demonstrator. A laser potentially would be capable of acquiring, tracking, and eventually destroying an enemy missile at a much lower cost than existing systems.”

Indeed, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have already begun testing a version of the technology for eventual deployment on airborne platforms.

The service and the Pentagon’s research arm this summer began ground testing a 150-kilowatt-class electric laser built by General Atomics against rockets, mortars, vehicles and surrogate surface-to-air missiles at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The project, known as the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System, or DLWS, is based on Darpa’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, or Hellads.


“That’s a pretty powerful laser,” David Hardy, head of directed energy at the Air Force Research Lab, said in a recent interview. “It’s exact power is classified.”

The point of the work over the next decade is to show the laser can be integrated as a weapon system on aircraft in the fleet, from drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper to bombers such as the B-1B Lancer.

Indeed, by 2021, the service expects to fire laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17 cargo planes — until miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from smaller aircraft such as F-15, F-16 or F-35 fighter jets, Mica Endsley, the Air Force’s former top scientist, has said.

“A laser is basically a thermal weapon,” Hardy said. “Its great advantage is all the power gets applied to a very small spot. You basically drill holes through material … If I want to defeat a missile, if I drill a hole through the side of it, get to its electronics, the missile is defeated. But there are lots of targets for which we want to be able to do that.”

The technology is attractive from a military standpoint because it has the potential for virtually unlimited magazines, he said.

“You’re converting jet fuel into electricity, electricity into laser power, laser power into defeating the target,” Hardy said. “So as long as I have fuel, I can keep firing the laser. So its magazine is as deep as I have fuel to keep running it and when I’m done, I can go put more fuel on it and the same laser weapon is there and I can use it again.”

The Air Force is taking a different approach with DLWS than it did with a previous acquisition program called the Airborne Laser. The megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser was installed and successfully tested in a Boeing 747-400 Freighter, but the system took up the entire aircraft and the acquisition effort was canceled in 2009 amid questions about its cost and feasibility.

“It was overly ambitious,” Hardy said. “I think what the Air Force and other services understand now is we can get truly remarkable things out of lasers in the long-term, but let’s not try to jump to the hardest long-term problem first. Let’s work our way up. Let’s have more sensible approaches.”

The Navy has already had some success by taking a similar tack. The service last year fired a 30-kilowatt solid-state laser aboard the USS Ponce amphibious ship in the Persian Gulf, marking the first-ever deployment of a sea-based directed energy weapon.

“Electric lasers are an emerging technology,” Hardy said. “It’s not clear that spending a whole lot of more money will let you go a whole lot faster.”


About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • FASnipeHT2

    30 years later. Mr.Reagan’s star wars plans are being realized. Pretty cool.

    • All_too_easy

      Wonder if Iran still has any weapons Reagan used to trade for hostages?

    • OldApolloTech

      Actually, the threat of “Star Wars” as a bargaining chip with the old Soviet Union helped end the Cold War. Regan refused to take it of the table in ICBM talks because it was strictly a defensive weapon. They couldn’t counter it (and we couldn’t really deliver it, but they didn’t know that). The technology wasn’t there in the 80’s. But he bluffed them out and they folded.

    • Jbadwin

      Nikola Tesla , invented and patented the Laser in the 1930s maybe sooner. He even offered the idea to the US, Brittan and Russia before WWII as a defense against Bombers . It was not Reagan’s idea , it was actually Nikola Tesla’s idea and his invention .

  • joedelman13

    Remember how the dems ridiculed and malign both — Reagan and laser-based weapons? Not a peep now. Disingenuous seems an apt description.

    • XYZ

      Are you referring the maligning of 32 years ago? Back when we were 32 years less advanced, technologically, than we are now? This technology is still 10-20 years from us deploying it on any fleet en masse - and that’s with our super duper advanced computers that can simulate exponentially more stuff than we could simulate 32 years ago.

      All’s I’m saying is - there’s a time and a place to develop any technology. And the 80s was too early for lasers.

      • joedelman13

        What you’re saying is not what the dems were saying. Where would we be now if Reagan had not been forward thinking and broached the idea 32 years ago. I know! Behind!

        • Brian B. Mulholland

          No. We’d be in the same place. Enormous amounts of work still have to be done to make useful weapons of lasers. What President Reagan was selling was a fantasy. What he produced was welfare for engineers, as with the pumped X-ray laser, “Brilliant Pebbles,” and “Sipapu.”

          I think President Reagan does not get credit he deserves for strengthening the conventional military, thereafter used so well by the first President Bush in Desert Storm. That said, to credit him as the godfather of recent progress in lasers is silly. As XYZ notes, the technology needed wasn’t remotely in sight. President Reagan no more invented military lasers than Jules Verne invented NASA.

          • joedelman13

            I’m not quite sure why you’re replying to me. Reread my statement. Nowhere in there will you see the word “godfather” or “inventor”! No one of Reagan’s stature or influence was promoting the idea of using lasers to destroy ICBM’s. No! He didn’t invent the idea. Obviously, he wasn’t a scientist or researcher. Was the idea conceived at all by a researcher. Maybe it was Gene Roddenberry. Or, some sci-fi writer before him. Reagan was a visionary, however. in a unique time and place. He saw the potential and thought it should be realized, and thusly encouraged it. How much influence that had on the development, I don’t know. There’s a lot of things lasers do today that they weren’t doing when Reagan pushed the idea. Technology evolves. And though it’s been 32 years since he suggested it, here we are today developing lasers to destroy things. I don’t recall, Brian, but, what type of laser technology did he propose? Pershaps, you could tell me, also, if the different types of lasers evolve independently of the others?

  • DALM89

    Very interesting I been following the developments of the airborne laser for some time now. IT will be very interesting to see how effective a smaller fuel powered version is on smaller flying platforms. I was reading they were having trouble with their accuracy in flight due to the vibrations and movements. So I found Darpa was working on a solution to try and resolve this issue. Have they made any progress? Im curious to know if firing at electronics would use more resources than simply trying to just ignite the fuel tanks? What if allot of time is wasted and deceptive systems of the future are not controlled in one targeted area? What would be the most effective means of killing a threat? And what could be an effective counter measure or defence against this type of warfare? Surely we wont be the only ones using these in the long run and systems would be designed differently to counter it in some way like how we try to counter radar through stealth. ID be more interested to see what can be done to stop this. We know everyone will be using these at some point. What will we do then? ID say throw the money on solving that issue as soon as possible before we spend so much money on weapons of today. They could all be rendered obsolete sooner than we expect.

    • Engineer

      I wonder what’s the difference would be between those progects and the YAL-1 chemical laser based ABL, cancelled 5 years ago.
      I doubt the converted 747 had too little room for fuel.
      current and planned solid-state lasers are order of magnitude weaker than the MW grade COIL on the YAL-1; meaning the operational range is going to be considerably smaller.
      is the pentagon planning of sorounding iran of n. korea with dozens of C-17 at a time?!

    • ToBeSeen

      Just wondering if you could just encase the electronics and fuel cells with a layer of space shuttle style heat tiles to absorb the heat from the laser in a missile. How long can a laser be maintained on a targeted area?
      Put surface (expendable) layers of sensors on a missile, so that once a laser hit is detected on the skin of the missile, the missile changes it’s flight path with random oscillations, to make a continuous laser lock on difficult.

      • NathanS

        At a quick glance, what you suggest seems plausible. But let’s go back to a quick 101 on how air-to-air missiles work for a second:

        Range is one of the biggest assets for an air-to-air missile (which is limited due to physical restrictions). Shooting first immediately puts the enemy on the defensive (it’s suicide to fly towards a missile), so tactically having the longest range missiles is important. Also, consider kill probability: a missile needs enough energy in its terminal phase to match any last-second evasive maneuver by the plane. So the highest kill probability for a missile is short of its maximum range. And the greater a missiles range, the greater its kill window. Early missiles were like what you see in the movies with a fast burning engine to “follow” the plane; however, fast closing speeds actually decrease kill probability as even a small last-second evasive maneuver will cause the missile to overshoot. Newer missiles (unless shot at close range) have a two stage engine: first they use a fast-burning engine to rapidly gain altitude (which greatly increases range - and thus kill window). Then it switches to a slow-burn rocket to maintain a certain speed and rate of descent towards its target. In the terminal phase, modern missiles are very agile, and can pull 40G’s; even the most agile of aircraft without counter-measures are unlikely to escape the blast radius.

        Now, evasive actions (particularly in its early phase) would significantly reduce the missiles ability to gain altitude and velocity, and thus greatly reduce range & kill probability. Even while “cruising” any major change in direction will rob the missile of energy, and decrease its effectiveness. Not to mention the weight required to adequately “armor” a missile with ceramic tiles, would also greatly affect range and agility further. Sensors with the relevant sensitivity to distinguish counter-measures from the target are not insignificant in size, and so it’s not trivial to have redundant systems, not to mention costly.

        So the missile you’re proposing would be expensive, and far inferior to anything we have today.

  • DALM89

    I’m also deeply concerned about our cheap drone numbers strategy. How will we be able to effectively defeat these laser systems to clear the way for an assault? And how can we ensure we wont lose our heavily priced fighter planes against such a cheap defence?

  • DALM89

    I understand stealth, situational awareness and advancement in sensors can help. But when a F-35 is about to strike a target the weapons bays open its more vulnerable and no plane is fully undetectable not all missions can be won with a laser so the need for the bomb bay will still exist. A cheap laser defence could fire instantly and kill our investments like they are nothing. What is the pentagon doing about this fast emerging threat? Will we more heavily rely on special ground units to disable these systems? I mean I just see chaos and huge losses all around at this point.

    • DALM89

      Imagine that our billions maybe trillions of dollars invested. Then woops one gets shot down now the enemy has our plane to recover. My gosh just one mistake… And a very affordable highly effective form of defence. We are gonna see the ground littered with these. How can we ensure one of them wont shoot down a highly valuable asset? I cant stop asking that question… I think its a real concern.

      • DALM89

        F-35 is not fast enough to run from it, stealth dose help a little but after it drops its payload oops now all systems are targeting this aircraft. the game has completely changed. Im afraid.. why because we have always had an aggressive strategy and the chances of losing our strategic forces could be much higher very soon. Im afraid of the politics. Im afraid of “Lets go to war”. Im afraid of losing to a small country because we were over confident. Im afraid of the economic repercussions this would have on tax payers and jobs…. I guess we could always just blow up a nuke in orbit and cause and EMP. But what if these systems were protected? And how would or can any of this affect the economy in the future? IS it possible to deflect a weapons laser? Is it possible that our entire military will no longer have the capability of assaulting a country with a very small defence budget? What will a future war look like in 50 years?

    • Dylan

      If you can find a nation (including the US) that has a laser that can acquire, orient itself, track, and hit a plane, from the ground, in a 5-10 second window of opportunity, and do all this cheaply- you’ve probably confused an Iron Man movie with reality.

    • reality

      I think they won’t even talk to it, which for once is a damn good thing, same way they won’t talk to their anti-GPS jamming countermeasures when the North Koreans were playing with them and the US military was rather unimpressed. It is a valid worry, but then, we have not heard that the Chinese were anywhere as close in their development and the Russians, though advanced in it, were ready to deploy anytime soon. Getting a lock on the fighter, or its carried weapons, is hard when compared to knocking out slow moving drones like our 10-30k lasers have done.

  • DALM89

    Could the mighty USA be defeated in one day without ever using a single nuke?

  • Valvatorez

    I’m thinking that lasers would be more useful for bombers, EW and Awacs rather then front line combat aircraft. They will have more space for the battery over a fighter.

    • DALM89

      I think all units should be armed with these weapons for defence purposes. BEcause when you have a hundred lasers coming at your squadrons you have seconds before its over. We have to take them out first and overwhelm them with more laser fire. The last thing we want to do is ignore these weapons. We should be figuring out how to counter them now before its too late. And we should develop cheaper drones to attract fire away from our sensitive platforms that can be deployed in flight.

      • DALM89

        Ofc bigger planes will have more space for lasers and they will be more powerful. But then they are not around and you have fighters facing fighters and other assets are not available at the time. Who is going to win when two jets are scrambled to intercept 10 jets? The ones who can detect and kill the shots fired at them. If the two jets had capability of an unlimited laser gun to kill the incoming shots. They would win and can fire their missiles after the enemy is depleted of its ability to shoot back. But screw that it wont ever happen. Once we have lasers they will have lasers if they dare face us like that. And we will need a whole new era of tech to win.

        • DALM89

          We need people who can think outside the box and keep all our new findings and developments completely secret and stop giving this tech away to china and other countries. I shake my head every time I hear how sensitive information is stolen because of lack of cyber security and what not. We need a completely in the dark off the grid, and offline, defence team of scientists and engineers that dont exist to protect the country and develop game changing things like this laser and never let it be known ever to the public or anyone but a few people in the pentagon. We need an ultimate think tank of the best minds because we are falling behind and spending money on research for other countries. I just hope one day if the shit hits the fan that out of no where the pentagon will unleash something unknown and highly advanced to save the world.

          • Valvatorez

            Data gets stolen because many of the US government’s computer are obsolete. The Navy had to pay Microsoft to keep using Windows XP. Seriously.

            Back to the weapon itself. An unlimited laser gun is impossible. What is plausible is giving as many shots as a GAU-8 on a 6th Gen Fighter. I say 6th because getting them on 5th generation fighters is a pipe dream. As the F-22 just got the Aim-9X.
            The stealthiness of the laser would be useless on the F-35 since it’s IRST is below the the plane only. Forcing them to use active sensors against a Chinese or Russian plane.

            As for drones, they should be prioritized as Wingmen for current and 6th Gen Aircraft.
            John Stillion proposed using drones to act as Interceptor aircraft for what basically is a bomber armed with missiles. The lack of a pilot means you would have more for the payload of each drone.
            However the NGAD is likely to be a return to the Navy Fleet Defense Fighter concept. Don’t care what the USAF has planned for 6th Gen.
            Probably the same old stealth fleet sensor fusion song and dance.

          • NathanS

            Incorrect; the F-35 has full-sphere IRST (and you can clearly see the sensors on top of the aircraft).

          • Valvatorez

            No, it does not it. EOTS is pointed towards the Ground. That fanboy lie has been debunked. That is not an IRST sensor. It is the plane’s ASEA radar, which if used gives the plane away.

          • NathanS

            Please cite your source.

            The F-35’s AESA radar (Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81) is internal in the aircraft, like pretty much all fighters in the world. The T/R array would be non-stealthy if mounted externally.
            It’s based on the F-22’s Northrop Grumman AN/APG-77 AESA. Like the AN/APG-77, it is a “Low Probability of Intercept Radar” (LPIR) that uses wideband frequency hopping, pulse compression and minimum power to track a target, which is unlikely to be detected or triangulated by the opposing aircraft. So if you’ve wondered how the F-22 (and F-35) can have an AESA and remain stealthy, now you know.

            For IRST, look up the Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ-37. It is a 4π steradian (full sphere) system, consisting of 6 high-definition infra-red cameras (just like a dice has 6 sides). The 6 cameras are visible on the aircraft’s fuselage, including two on top:

  • thexfile

    What if it’s cloudy that day? Lasers still have limits.

    • DALM89

      I doubt a cloud would interfere so much as these things can burn holes through thick steel. The more energy you have the more effective it will be. If it can cut through thick steel though im sure a cloud would be no issue at all… Think what would be more of an issue is its stability and accuracy when vibrating and moving around. Also the amount of energy we can produce and how cost effective it is is what will determine what systems are economically viable. Lockheed martins compact fusion reactor developments are im sure what will eventually power lasers on a 6th or 7th generation jet. I cant see them finishing in time before the need for a 6th generation fighter. However its quite obvious advanced lasers capability will be one of the key defining features of one of these planes. Along with self healing liquid or something along those lines that act like blood clots to heal wounds. Im pretty sure though that a 7th generation fighter will be completely autonomous, have a very long fuselage lifetime, cheap to produce after its developed, have amazing survivability, and be able to counter in some way the threat of lasers. I dont think this would work but has anyone tried to fire a laser beam directly at another laser beam before? IT is possible we might be able to develop some type of beam that could cool the effects of a hostile laser, disrupt, or disperse its focused energy? I mean we should be thinking outside the box for other possible solutions than just heavy armor. Because the last thing we want is more heavy planes. We want something fast, affordable, small, lightweight,durable, and to bring these weapons into the hot zone, and bring them back out without giving the enemy our technology. Lets start here… heres a research project. Is there any known way to disrupt or interfere with a lasers beam? Can it be dispersed? Can it have less of an effect on heat tiles or whatever other materials if shaped differently? What are the lightest materials that can? Can those heat particles be stopped or forced in the opposite direction if focused into a more powerful laser beam and amplify a defencive measure and destroy the apposing laser? how can we protect our lasers? A million questions that will eventually need to be answered and hopefully before we start mass deploying these on the field well have that figured out. And heres a scary question… What happens if one laser is hit and burned open what will that do to everything else around it? Could one direct hit on one of these systems be a huge threat to other assets operating around it? Too many questions… no answers… Very scary in a million ways.

      • DALM89

        What if we fired several laser beans directly into the path of a hostile laser? Would that weaken it?

        • DALM89

          OR would it make it stronger?

        • NathanS

          Does shining two torches at each other weaken the beam? Of course not. The photons simply pass each other.

      • DALM89

        I think the answer to defend against them will be a combination of materials in a specific order and shape along with other countermeasures.

        • DALM89

          Would be cool if we could find some way to harness the energy and use it.

  • changey

    If a 150 kw laser is being field tested then the labs are closing in on 1 MW lasers. The vision of directed energy weapons with very destructive power is close at hand. Then there are the rail guns coming out for operational testing in 2016. Taken together, a new revolution is upon us.
    I wonder what a new USN battleship could do with 4 max range rail guns and 4 smaller close in defense rail guns? With 4 1 MW lasers and many in the 150 kw to 300 kw range?
    Could the age of heavily armored ships return?

    • Jeff M

      ABL was tested and was MW class.

  • jffourquet

    Why not use these drones or large aircraft w/ lasers as air defense weapons to protect bases and cities in the US and overseas from attack by aircraft and cruise missiles?

    • DALM89

      That is the whole idea bud and reason whey are developing the airborne laser do defend squadrons and whatever else.

  • Peter

    Maybe (probably!) I’m being too simplistic here but a laser is light. Highly concentrated and destructive but still just light. Light reflects. That’s how we see colours. So if the laser used is green for example then paint your vehicle green and straight away you’re reflecting a major portion of the energy. That may or may not be enough to save it but to me it looks like at least that start of a defense. And cheap too!

    • blight_

      If the laser is powerful enough, your reflective surface is thermally heated and cracks, or vaporizes. The remaining milisecond of the laser pulse punches through.

      Double tap that laser beam.

      • DALM89

        We need to research beam disruption/dispersion and if its even possible.

        • DALM89

          I can just see massive lasers on a gigantic scale powered by fusion reactors to counter this. I think what I been reading is right. Special forces or highly trained units are going to be needed more in the near future. Area access denial is going to increase as stuff like this continues to evolve.

  • Barry Henwood

    I worked on the Alpha Program for 15 years at the Capistrano Test Site. It was the only cylindrical laser ever built in the free world that worked. Then I worked on the ABL program at Edwards AFB. Both were successful. The Third one few talk about is THEL Tactical High Energy Laser tested at CTS then moved and operated for years at White Sands. Yes the days of Lasers have been proven time and time again. With Chemical lasers the major problem is re-loading the fuels for more firing. In Space was a serious problem - the ABL shot down targets and even it was sent to the bone yard and dismantled. There always seems to be that need for the latest and greatest not necessarily the working model we have proved can do the job. Good Luck with that concept we may never be ready to defend America with those old time beliefs.

    • Gary Nelson Harper

      Yep… Once you’re out of NF3, the show is over. I was asked to write a white paper about refilling Fluorine tanks in space. LoL…. Had to pass on that one….!

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    My $0.02; we’ll see lasers first in use as defensive weapons on big airframes that operate at high altitude, and used to kill incoming A/A missiles. Thin air reduces beam dispersion and makes the thermal signature of an incoming missile more easily visible.

    Killing ballistic missiles while they’re ascending is going to be a long second generation away. The distances will be greater and, as a class of weapon, they can make some use of ablative armor, of reflective coatings, and spinning during ascent to reduce the time that the beam dwells on any given point.

    • Gary Nelson Harper

      Not to mention the tens of thousands of Kapton decoys to discriminate against Mid-course, if one misses the boost phase show.

      • blight_

        I guess we’ll need to use those Google airborne balloons for boost phase missile defense.

  • Douglas G. Sauvageau

    Can obscurants (smoke or chafe) degrade the effectiveness of a directed-energy weapon?

  • OldFedVet1941

    Bring back the Battle Wagons and take the ones, if any we still have and arm them with Rail Guns and Lasers. Problem solved!

  • Andreas

    I believe the Chinese are suddenly boosting their hypersonic aircraft/missiles research exactly to counter laser weapons.

  • test

    lookie here