Directed Energy Projects Losing in Fight for Research Funding: Officials

(U.S. Air Force illustration)(U.S. Air Force illustration)

On Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon’s courtyard earlier this month, the focus was on developing new air and ground-based weapons that would direct high-energy beams against a range of threats — from frying enemy roadside bombs to zapping ballistic missiles in the boost phase.

Despite the promise held out by industry proponents of lasers and high-power microwave bursts, military officials and senators from both sides of the aisle said that lack of funding was putting a crimp on the necessary research and testing for the new weapons under the constraints of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

“We’re on an unaffordable path” for research, said Adm. William E. Gortney, who was expected to retire this summer as head of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said at an April 13 Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing on Ballistic Missiles Defense Policies and Programs.

During that same week in the Pentagon’s courtyard, industry and military laboratories had on display mockups and illustrations of their systems, from Boeing’s Strategic Laser Systems for missile defense to Leidos’ High Power Microwave (HPM) for ground-based Explosive Hazard Neutralization (EHN) meant to destroy roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDS).

The Leidos system, developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate, was essentially a megawatt generator turbine mounted on a heavy truck and billed by Leidos as a “first of its kind solution to the standoff, pre-detonatiuon of explosive hazards.”

The system is designed for route clearance and convoy security, and was intended to “protect warfighters from exposure to blast and shrapnel.

Tommy Cavazos, Leidos program manager for the EHN prototype, said directed energy beams coming off the prototype truck would melt the blasting caps of IEDs and defuse the explosives or set off the explosive chain reaction before troops were exposed to danger.

“They’re using these IEDs almost as landmines, to create these minefields, which they can then cover with fire,” Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said in a briefing from Baghdad to the Pentagon last month.

Cavazos said the projected cost of the prototype truck was about $30 million. If the system went into the production phase, the cost would likely come down to “probably $6 or $7 million. We’d like to get it down to $1 million,” Cavazos said.

The costs of the directed energy and laser systems, and the lack of funding for research, were a constant refrain at the Senate Subcommittee hearing. Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, said he was concerned that budget constraints were limiting funding for directed energy weapons that would be cheaper in the long run than the “hit-to-kill” anti-missile weapons for ballistic missile defense.

“I’m really disappointed that that seems to be going off the budget table,” when to me it’s penny wise and pound foolish,” King said. “Directed energy would be a lot cheaper if it works than sending a rocket up every time,” he said in questioning Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency.

Syring resounded, “We have been trying to get the directed energy program ramped up in past budget requests and I just ask for your support this year. That’s the next technological development and it would be a lot less expensive and perhaps even more effective” than the hit-to-kill vehicle.

Earlier this month, Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoman Republican, and Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, introduced a bill to speed up the acquisitions process for the development and fielding of directed energy weapons systems.

“Directed energy is one area in which the U.S. still has the advantage and could fundamentally change the battlefield,” Inhofe said.

“I truly believe that directed energy will provide our armed forces with a qualitative advantage over our adversaries and play a critical role in the future of weapons systems for our military. This legislation will drive change forward even faster,” said Heinrich, whose state is home to the Air Force Research Laboratory, the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office, and the White Sands Missile Range.

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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.