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.

Laser1

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: https://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/budgetfy17.pdf.

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.

Laser2

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 https://www.c-span.org/video/?403405-1/discussion-ballistic-missile-defense.

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]

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[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 https://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/advsys.pdf.

[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 http://graphics.latimes.com/missile-defense/.

[4] Missile Defense Agency, “Airborne Laser Test Bed Successful in Lethal Attempt,” News Release, February 11, 2011.  Online at  https://www.mda.mil/news/10news0002.html.  Vice Admiral James Syring, “Ballistic Missile Defense System Update,” Presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 19, 2016.  Video online at https://www.csis.org/events/ballistic-missile-defense-system-update-1. Transcript online at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/event/160119_ballistic_transcript.pdf.

[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: https://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/ps_syring_050813_HASC.pdf;  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 https://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/ps_syring_031915_hasc.pdf.

[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 https://www.mda.mil/global/documents/pdf/FY17_Written_Statement_HASC_SF_Admiral_Syring_14042016.pdf.

[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.

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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?

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