The US military is investigating how to get powerful lasers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles onto drones, after the failure of a similar program for aircraft.
In 2012, the US Department of Defense cancelled its Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed, which used a chemical laser built into a 747 aircraft to shoot down incoming missiles – after spending an estimated $5bn on the project over ten years. Now the idea is back, but this time with drones.
"We have significantly ramped up our program in terms of investment and talking about ... what else needs to be done to mature this capability," Vice Admiral James Syring, the Missile Defense Agency director, told Center for Strategic and International Studies, Defense One reports.
The YAL-1 proved the concept of laser attacks on missiles but in practical terms the aircraft wasn't feasible. In order to get enough power to knock out missiles, it had to get very close to the target, making it vulnerable to attack.
Now the Pentagon is investigating how to build the laser technology onto smaller drones that can loiter over a target for a long time in readiness to shoot down a launch. These drones could be permanently stationed over launch silos without the need for human pilots.
"It proved that this concept could work," Syring said. "It proved that, given enough power, given enough beam quality, given enough altitude, intercept of a ballistic missile ... [at a] wide variety of ranges would theoretically be possible."
That word theoretically is key. The YAL-1 used twin chemical lasers weighing 36,000kg in total and could only fire between 20 and 40 shots. Getting that on a drone is going to be difficult at best, and may be impossible.
That's not going to stop the US military, which firmly adheres to the philosophy that anything is possible if you throw enough money at it. Ever since President Ronald Reagan started funding anti-ballistic missile technology, the military has thrown billions at the project, with a conspicuous lack of success.
But science be damned. If there's a way to shoot these things then the military (aided by Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other contractors) will find it.
"You're going to need as much power as you can get to destroy as many boosters as you can," Syring said. "If you can balance that range, altitude, power and number of boosters you need to defeat to help augment our kinetic capability, you're thinking about the problem exactly right." ®