Missile Defense Agency Sees Megawatt Anti-ICBM Lasers by 2026

In July 2023 Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) announced they will scale its laser technology to a new benchmark: a 500 kW-class laser, the most powerful laser Lockheed Martin has produced, topping its 300 kW-class laser power level developed under a contract from the Department of Defense. This is the second phase of the High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative (HELSI).

Above is the compact 500 kilowatt laser concept art from Lockheed. They will further reduce size and weight and increase power to MW [megawatt] levels by FY2026.

On April 10, 2020, the Department of Defense selected General Atomics as a third prime contractor to join previously selected prime contractors Lockheed Martin, and nLight/Nutronics in building high energy lasers for the High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative (HELSI). Each developer will produce a 300 kW class high energy laser (HEL) source prototype with an architecture scalable to 500 kW or beyond, using a unique technology approach. The focus is on common, multi-Service/Agency needs for HEL (high energy laser) improvements.

HELSI funding awards –
nLight/Photonics [nLight/Nutronics], $48 million award: The performer will develop a 300 kW class HEL device based on coherent beam combined technology. —
Lockheed-Martin, $83 million award: The performer will develop a spectral beam combined fiber laser prototype. —
General Atomics, $47 million: The performer will develop a distributed gain laser prototype.

The Army has sponsored Lockheed Martin’s 300-kilowatt laser, which will be used for the Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) program, while the other HELSI vendors include Nutronics Inc. sponsored by the Navy and General Atomics by the Air Force.

The Pentagon has been spending about $1 billion per year researching directed energy weapons like lasers and microwave weapons for decades. They have bought a few demonstration systems for Navy ships and mounted on trucks.

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is the group tasked with being able to defend against ICBM and other enemy nuclear missiles and nuclear weapons on planes. The MDA has a budget over over $10 billion per year and have requested about $55 billion over the next five years. Around 80% of their budget is for research and development. They also buy new radar, space based sensing and anti-missile missile systems. The US military acquires new military gear and spends around $200 billion not counting the weapons that get used up in the many US wars.

After spending tens of billions on combat laser research over the past few decades, Laura DeSimone, MDA executive director says they are finally seeing some real progress to usable combat lasers in the past few months with the new Grumman and Lockheed combat lasers.

“I think part of [why] the Missile Defense Agency in the past few years kind of backed away was that technology needed still needed to mature. It needed to mature in power levels that could be delivered on target, and needed to mature and reduction of the size, weight and power requirements to produce the directed-energy effects,” explained Laura DeSimone, MDA executive director.

With directed-energy research now coming to fruition, the Missile Defense Agency is putting “increased emphasis” on development of directed-energy weapons for shooting down adversary missiles.

However in recent months, the agency has seen “that technology maturation is happening,” DeSimone said, including at the US national laboratories, the Department of Energy and within industry.

“I mean, there have been some really impressive results,” DeSimone said. “We’ve been doing studies all along, and looking at lethality effects and doing experimentation. But we think that, finally, we’re starting to see some real progress and, and so that’s why the increased emphasis.”

The US military and MDA were willing to spend a $1 billion per year on lasers and directed energy weapons when they were not mature and did not have a real chance of being useful defensive systems. How much will spending go up now that the MDA thinks usable megawatt anti-ICBM lasers are getting within reach?

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