Chronology of MDA’s Plans for Laser Boost-Phase Defense (August 26, 2016)

The Missile Defense Agency plans to produce “in the 2025 time frame” an airborne laser capable of destroying ballistic missiles in their boost phase.[1]  As a start in looking at this program, I first have constructed the following chronology of MDA’s plans for laser boost-phase defense.

My focus here is on the output power (and weight required to achieve that power) achieved and planned.  I’ll consider other issues such as the airborne platform, costs, how the lasers operate, etc. in future posts.


Figure 1. The beam combiner of a fiber combining laser (FCL).  It seems likely that this is the system described under “2013” below, as it appears to combine 21 fibers.  Image Source: Missile Defense Agency, “Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 Budget Estimates: Overview,” online at:

About 2011:  MDA began to invest in several electrically-driven laser technologies.  According to its FY 2012 budget documents, in FY 2011 the MDA planned to “Develop and experiment with diode-pumped gas lasers, fiber lasers, solid state and advanced high-power laser optics.”[2]  The two main lines of laser development that ultimately emerged from this were a Diode Pumped Alkali Laser System (DPALS) and a Fiber Combining Laser (FCL).  The DPALS research was based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and the FCL research at the MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and both have also been supported by DARPA.

By this time, it had long been clear that the Airborne Laser (ABL) program, with its large, complex and chemically hazardous Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) on a Boeing 747 airplane, would never produce a viable operational system.  The ABL was finally completely cancelled in 2012, after at least $5.3 billion had been spent on it.[3]  In February 2010 tests, the ABL shot down three ballistic missiles (both liquid and solid fueled) with its mega-watt class laser, although only at ranges of “tens of kilometers.”[4]

2012: The MDA stated that in 2012, it “Demonstrated the architectural feasibility of the Diode Pumped Alkali Laser System (DPALS) and the combined fiber lasers for high power applications.”[5]  The FCL prototype at Lincoln Laboratory, which “exploits a novel technique for combining the output of individual fiber lasers,” achieved a power output of 2.5 kW.[6]  The LLNL DPALS demonstrated a threefold increase in power and a 50% increase in efficiency.[7]

2013:   The FCL, coherently combining 21 separate fiber amplifiers, reached an output power of 17.5 kW with near perfect beam quality.[8]  The MDA described this power as a “world record” for such a laser.  The MDA also demonstrated a power output of 1.5 kW from a single, combinable fiber amplifier.[9]  The DPALS at Livermore achieved a peak power of 3.9 kW (also described as a world record) and a laser run time of four minutes.[10]

2014: The FCL exceeded 34 kW.[11]  The DPALS reached 5 kW, and its hardware was subsequently redesigned and assembled “for the next step in power scaling.”[12]

2015: Lincoln Laboratory’s FCL, now combining 42 fibers, reached 44 kW with near perfect beam quality.[13]  This version of the FCL was described as “room sized” and with a weight-to-power ratio of 40 kg/kW.[14] [For points of comparison, the Airborne Laser’s Size Weight and Power (SWaP) was 55 kg/kW, Admiral Syring has stated that at least 5 kg/kW is needed to have any chance of workable boost-phase weapon, and MDA’s SWaP goal is 2 kg/kW.[15]]  MDA’s program also demonstrated a 2.5 kW combinable single fiber amplifier and achieved “excellent” beam quality with a 101 fiber low-power scalability demonstration.[16]  The DPALS at Livermore reached 14 kW and an accumulated run time of greater than 100 minutes without degradation of any system components.[17]

2017: In 2017, Lincoln Laboratory will demonstrate a 30 kW low SWaP 7 kg/kW fully packaged FCL.[18]  The same year, Lawrence Livermore plans to demonstrate a 30 kW average power DPALS with a beam quality of 1.5 times the diffraction limit and plans to complete a preliminary design for a 120 kW system.

2018: In 2018, MDA plans to improve the FCL design to a 50 kW system in a 5 kg/kW package.[19]  MDA will also conduct multiple laser studies on high power scaling and technology readiness of industrial laser concepts for use in a down select in 2019.[20]

2019: In FY 2019, MDA plans to demonstrate a 120 kW DPALS.  An MDA slide suggests that this may achieve a SWaP of about 3 kg/kW (see figure 2).  In 2019, MDA will select one of either the DPALS, the FCL or one of the other industrial concepts for further development as a boost-phase weapon.


Figure 2.  MDA’s laser Size, Weight and Power plans.  Source:  Vice Admiral James Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” Presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 20, 2016.  Video online at

By 2021: MDA plans to conduct a low-powered flight demonstration by 2021 “to determine the feasibility of destroying enemy missiles in the boost phase of flight.”[21]

2022: By 2022 MDA plans to produce a prototype 300 kilowatt class laser using the technology selected in FY 2019.[22]

2025 time frame: In the 2025 time frame, MDA’s goal is “to integrate a compact, efficient, high power laser into a high altitude, long endurance aircraft capable of carrying that laser and destroying targets in the boost phase.”[23]


[1] “In the 2025 time frame, our goal is to integrate a compact, efficient, high power laser into a high altitude, long endurance aircraft capable of carrying that laser and destroying targets in the boost-phase.”  Missile Defense Agency, “Advanced Technology,” Fact Sheet, July 28, 2016.  Online at

[2] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget Estimates, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2, February 2011, p. 2-21.

[3] David Willman, “The Pentagon’s $10 Billion Bet Gone Bad,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2015.  Online at

[4] Missile Defense Agency, “Airborne Laser Test Bed Successful in Lethal Attempt,” News Release, February 11, 2011.  Online at  Vice Admiral James Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” Presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 19, 2016.  Video online at Transcript online at

[5] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, April 2013, p. 2a-27

[6] Statement of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, May 8, 2013. Online at:;  FY 2014 President’s Budget, p. 2a-27

[7] FY 2014 President’s Budget, p. 2a-27

[8] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Budget Estimates, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, March 2014, p.  2a-73

[9] FY 2015 Budget Estimates, p. 2a-73.

[10] FY 2015 Budget Estimates, p. 2a-73.

[11] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, February 2015, p. 2a-34.

[12] FY 2016 President’s Budget, p. 2a-34; Statement of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, March 19, 2015. Online at

[13] Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 President’s Budget Submission, Missile Defense Agency, RDT&E, Defense Wide, Vol. 2a, February 2016, p. 2a-26;  Statement of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2016. Online at

[14] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-25.

[15] Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” January 19, 2016.

[16] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26.

[17] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26; Syring Statement, April 14, 2016.

[18] Syring Statement, April 14, 2016.

[19] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-25.

[20]FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26.

[21] Testimony of Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Senate Armed Services Committee, April 13, 2016.

[22] FY 2017 President’s Budget, p. 2a-26.

[23] MDA, “Advanced Technology” factsheet.

MDA’s Space-Based Kill Assessment (SKA) Experiment (August 9, 2016)

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) plans to deploy a Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) system by about mid-2017. The SKA system, which MDA describes as an experiment, will consist of small sensor packages deployed on a number of commercial satellite hosts. It is intended to demonstrate a capability to rapidly determine whether or not an interceptor has hit and killed its intended warhead target.  Other than two Space News articles, the SKA system has received little public attention.[1]

MDA argues that a kill assessment capability can reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of a missile defense system by eliminating the need to fire additional interceptors at a target that has already been destroyed.  “The faster we can determine a threatening missile has been eliminated, the fewer the number of interceptors are need in the fight.”[2] The MDA goes as far as arguing that the SKA experiment “has the potential to change the economics of the defense of the American homeland from enemy ballistic missiles.[3]  This approach to reducing the number of interceptors fired — known as shoot-look-shoot – may or may not be possible depending on the timelines involved.  However, at a minimum, it is clear that this approach requires a rapid capability to assess the outcome of an intercept attempt.

Is There a Need for Additional Kill Assessment Capabilities?

The task of kill assessment is closely related to that of target discrimination.  Effective discrimination – the capability to identify the actual warhead from among other possible threatening objects such as deployment debris, rocket stages or decoys – is universally recognized as essential to the effective operation of a missile defense system.  And the current U.S. GMD national missile defense system is officially claimed to be very effective. But if a defense system is very effective at identifying the warhead from among other objects, shouldn’t it also be able subsequently to determine if the warhead has been hit and destroyed?  Why then is an additional kill assessment capability needed?

Read the full post »

The Sea-Based Terminal Program and the SM-6 Dual Interceptors (July 25, 2016)

Sea-Based Terminal

Most of the attention given the US Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program focuses on its various versions of the SM-3 anti-missile interceptor.  These missiles, the SM-3 Block IA, the SM-3 Block IB and the forthcoming SM-3 Block IIA, intercept their targets above the atmosphere and are intended to provide coverage over large areas (particularly the Block IIA).  However, this post discusses the Missile Defense Agency’s and the Navy’s Sea-Based Terminal (SBT) program, which is developing and deploying lower-altitude, within-the atmosphere ballistic missile defense interceptors.

An SBT capability offers several possible benefits.  First, it provides a second layer of ballistic missile defense for Navy ships and nearby areas, thereby potentially increasing the overall effectiveness of the Aegis BMD system.  SBT interceptors operate in a completely different way than the SM-3 interceptors.  The SBT interceptors home in on their target using radar, maneuver using atmospheric forces, and kill with a high-explosive fragmentation warheads, while SM-3 interceptors use infrared homing, maneuver using rocket thruster (divert thrusters), and kill using direct high-speed collisions.  These differences in operating principles may make it less likely that a countermeasure (or other circumstance) that defeats an SM-3 interceptor can also defeat an SBT interceptor.  Second, SBT interceptors can potentially intercept shorter-range missiles, such as Scuds (or longer range missiles on depressed trajectories) that do not leave the atmosphere (that is, rise above about 100 km altitude) and thus cannot be intercepted by SM-3 interceptors.  Third, SBT interceptors are likely to be much less expensive, by a factor of three or more, than SM-3 interceptors.  Finally, SBT interceptors can also be used to intercept aircraft (and soon ships), allowing more efficient use of the limited number of vertical launch tubes on Navy ships.

SM-2 Block IV, Block IVA, and Block IV (modified)

In the 1990s, the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Navy planned to develop a terminal phase ballistic missile defense system known as Navy Lower Tier.  (In parallel, BMDO was developing the Navy Upper Tier interceptor, which was renamed Navy Theater Wide, and eventually evolved into the current SM-3 Aegis BMD interceptors.)  This program, which was renamed Navy Area Defense in 1996, was based on a new version of the Navy’s existing extended-range air defense missile the SM-2 Block IV.  The SM-2 Block IV operates within the atmosphere, uses semi-active radar homing and has a high-explosive fragmentation warhead.

Read the full post »

THAAD Radar Ranges (July 17, 2018)

A central element of the debate surrounding the recent decision by South Korea to allow the United States to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on its territory is the range of the THAAD’s radar. China argues that the THAAD radar will be able to look deep into its territory; supporters of the deployment counter that the radar will be configured so that its range will be limited.

The radar used with a THAAD battery is the X-band AN/TPY-2.  The TPY-2 radar has two configurations.  It can be configured as Terminal Mode (TM) radar, in which it operates as the fire control radar for a THAAD battery.  Alternatively, it can be set up as a Forward-Based Mode (FBM) radar, in which it relays tracking and discrimination data to a remote missile defense system, such as the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) system.  If THAAD is deployed to South Korea, The United States has stated that its TPY-2 radar would be in the shorter-range TM configuration.  Since in the TM mode, the radar reportedly only has a range of 600 km, supporters of the THAAD deployment argue that while its range is adequate to cover N. Korea, it cannot look deeply into China.  Critics of this argument point out that in the FBM mode the radar has a much greater range, and that the radar can be converted from TM to FBM (or vice versa) in only eight hours or less.  According to a U.S. Army manual, “The hardware used by the two modes is identical, but their controlling software, operating logic, and communications package are different.”[1]  In addition the radar is highly mobile: it can be transported by air and can be operational with four hours of reaching its deployment site.

Read the full post »

THAAD Flight and Intercept Tests Since 2005 (July 10, 2016)

Flight tests of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system since developmental testing resumed in 2005 and planned future tests.


Figure 1. THAAD intercept tests since 2005. In April 2012, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation stated that “due to budget constraints within the agency, MDA had decided to slow the pace of THAAD testing to about one test every eighteen months.[1] 

FTT-01 (November 22, 2005:  First launch of an operationally-configured THAAD interceptor.[2]  The launch, conducted at the White Sands Test Range (WSMR), successfully demonstrated the operation of missile and kill vehicle, although no target was used and thus no intercept was attempted.  The THAAD TPY-2 radar does not appear to have participated in this test.

Read the full post »

SM-3 Block IIA Testing Chronology (July 7, 2016)

SM-3 Block IIA Testing Chronology

SCD PTV-01 (October 2013): SM-3 Cooperative Development (SCD) Propulsion Test Vehicle (PTV)-01. A test of the Block IIA booster rocket and canister, reportedly successful, intended to demonstrate that The Block IIA could be launched from the Vertical Launching System used on U.S. Navy Aegis ships and at Aegis Ashore sites.

SCD CTV-01 (June 6, 2015): SCD Controlled Test Vehicle (CTV)-01.  First flight test of SM-3 Block IIA.  It was not an intercept test and no target was present.  The Missile Defense Agency stated that the test “successfully demonstrated flyout through nosecone deployment and third stage deployment.”[1]  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the test was delayed by about 5 months.[2]

Read the full post »

Strategic Capabilities of SM-3 Block IIA Interceptors (June 30, 2016)

In two previous posts, I made estimated projections forward in time of the number of U.S. Navy ballistic missile defense (BMD) capable ships and the number of SM-3 BMD interceptors.[1]  These projections reached two main conclusions: (1) The number of BMD capable ships would reach the upper seventies (77) by 2040; and (2) The number of SM-3 Block IIA interceptors (including possible more advanced version of the missile) would be in the hundreds, possibly 500-600 or more, by the mid-to-late 2030s.

Several developments since those posts were written illustrate the uncertain nature of such projections.  In February 2016, it was revealed that the Navy had decided to upgrade three additional Flight IIA Aegis destroyers to the full advanced BMD capability (under the previous plan these three ships would have had no SM-3 BMD capability).[2]  In addition, it is still unclear how long the five Aegis BMD cruisers will remain in service, although this makes no difference to the longer term projections..

Read the full post »

Update on Future Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) Flight Tests (April 20, 2016)

An updated description of planned GMD flight tests (last update was my post of April 12, 2015) as best I can reconstruct them.  Between now and mid-2021, it appears that MDA plans five intercept and one non-intercept test of the GMD system.

FY 2017:

FTG-15 (1Q FY 2017).  This is scheduled to be the first intercept test since FTG-06b in July 2014.  It will be the first GMD intercept test against an ICBM-range target (range greater than 5,500 km).  The target will include countermeasures.  FTG-15 will  also will be the first flight and intercept test of the new production CE-II Block-I version of the Exo-Atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) and the first flight test of the upgraded C2 booster.   According to Admiral Syring, in this test “…we’re getting now out to the long-range and closing velocities that certainly would be applicable from a North Korean or Iran type of scenario.” [1]


FTG-15 (Image source: MDA)

Read the full post »

Updated List of Claims about GMD Effectiveness (April 14, 2016)

This is an updated list (previous version was June 16, 2015) of claims by U.S. government officials about the effectiveness of the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse (GMD) national missile defense system.  It adds four additional claims (#33, #34, #35 and #36).

(1) September 1, 2000: “… I simply cannot conclude, with the information I have today, that we have enough confidence in the technology and the operational effectiveness of the entire NMD system to move forward to deployment. Therefore, I have decided not to authorize deployment of a national missile defense at this time.”  President Bill Clinton, at Georgetown University, September 1, 2000.

(2) March 18, 2003:  “Effectiveness is in the 90% range.[1]   Edward Aldridge, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

Read the full post »

A Three-Stage Two-Stage GBI Interceptor (February 2, 2016)

One thing that was surprising (to me, at least) about Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Admiral James Syring’s January 19 2016 presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies was his description of the MDA’s planned two-stage version of the Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI).[1]

The MDA has long had plans to eventually incorporate a two-stage version of the three-stage GBI currently deployed in Alaska and California into its Ground Based Midcourse GMD) national missile defense system.

The idea of using a two-stage version of the GBI first came to public attention in 2006 when the George W. Bush Administration announced plans to deploy two-stage GBIs in Europe to provide an extra layer of defense of U.S. territory against Iranian ICBMs.  Although an agreement was reached in 2008 to deploy ten of the two-stage GBIs on Polish territory, in 2009 President Obama cancelled these plans in order to proceed with his European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).  However, the possibility of deploying two-stage GBIs – this time on U.S. territory — was retained was retained as part of the GMD “hedge” strategy.[2]

Read the full post »