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Flying Fire: Pentagon Orders Ballistic Missile-Killing Drone-Mounted Laser

© REUTERS / KCNAIntercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 is pictured during its second test-fire in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 is pictured during its second test-fire in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017 - Sputnik International
Among the many items in their $9.9 billion budget request for fiscal year 2019, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has requested $66 million to develop a drone-mounted laser that can be used to destroy ballistic missiles shortly after launch - or possibly even before they fly.

Of that, $61 million would go to the ongoing program to develop a laser versatile and light enough to be mounted on a variety of drones, the Low Power Laser Demonstrator (LPLD). An additional $5 million would go to increase the power of the laser to be able to destroy ballistic missiles.

Strengthening the laser is the easy part: the LPLD uses the highly stable solid-state fiber laser technology, the same technology used for fiber optic communications. Making a more powerful laser using solid state fibers is simply a matter of packing more fibers in.

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The drone is the hard part. It would need to be able to withstand high altitudes of at least 63,000 feet, have the endurance to fly for at least 36 hours and be able to carry at least 5,000 pounds, including a laser cannon of 140 to 280 kilowatts mounted on it — no mean feat.

MDA also wants the drone to carry a tracking laser, a defensive laser and a beam-control system that will prevent atmospheric or environmental conditions from weakening the laser's impact.

In 2017, the bidding war to develop the LPLD began, with Boeing, General Atomics and Lockheed Martin all receiving phase one contracts to develop their own solutions for the Pentagon in 2018. The winner will be awarded a contract to develop a testable prototype of the LPLD by 2020.

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Boeing is in the midst of building another compact laser, the 10 kw Compact Laser Weapon System, meant to be transportable by a squad of Marines. But the CLWS is nowhere near powerful enough for MDA's purposes.

Lockheed, meanwhile, has the opposite problem: they're building the US Navy's 500 kw High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS), but a ship-mounted laser cannon would be far too large for a drone to carry.

"Lockheed Martin has committed millions of dollars to directed energy research and development, laying the groundwork for the laser technology that brings us much closer to an operational system capable of intercepting a missile in its boost phase," said Lockheed Martin Strategic and Missile Defense Director Sarah Reeves in a statement accompanying the contract.

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The phase one contracts instructed the defense contractors to build weapons that have the capacity to intercept missiles after launch. Generally, countermeasures against missile defense systems aren't activated until a ballistic missile reaches the apex of its trajectory. In the moments after a ballistic missile takes off, it emits huge amounts of exhaust that make it easy to detect and locate the launch.

But the launch window is a very short amount of time: one to five minutes, depending on the missile. Pre-launch interception takes more power, but the Pentagon isn't ruling it out as a possibility either.

"Our vision is to shift the calculus of our potential adversaries by introducing these systems into the ballistic missile defense system," said Chris Johnson, a spokesperson for the MDA, when the initial contracts were announced in June 2017. "This could revolutionize missile defense, dramatically reducing the role of kinetic interceptors."

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