Drones with Lasers for Missile Defense

Since the first successful laser test in 1960, directed energy weapons promised a futuristic version of warfare just around the corner. Almost sixty years later, the technology remains just around the corner, but recent advances may make current attempts different.

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Since the first successful laser test in 1960, directed energy weapons promised a futuristic version of warfare just around the corner. Almost sixty years later, the technology remains just around the corner, but recent advances may make current attempts different. Today, directed energy weapons could help bolster U.S. missile defense capabilities. While previous programs have been cancelled, similar research and development contracts are reappearing in different incarnations. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) continues to fund research for drone-based lasers, a new spin on an old airborne laser idea.1 Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics are currently contracted to work on this Low Power Laser Demonstrator (LPLD).

Program Background

Current ballistic missile defense capabilities face varied criticisms – from unintended political messaging to an unsatisfactory success rate. For instance, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system began in 2002, and didn’t successfully hit an intercontinental ballistic missile target until 2017.2 Politically, some current ballistic missile defense programs meant to defend against a North Korean strike perturb China.

The LPLD seeks to create solid-state fiber lasers ready to test by 2020. If the drone-based laser encounters some of the same obstacles as the Air Force’s cancelled Airborne Laser program, it will run over the 2020 timeline.3 Previous airborne lasers were challenged by the weight and range of the system, as well as bad weather affecting lasing.4 Technologically, airborne laser systems are still not ready for deployment – but changing from a chemical-based laser to solid-state lasers solves some previous challenges. Chemical lasers require tanks of chemicals to power the laser. The tanks are so large they required a 747 to carry them. Switching to solid-state lasers, which use a solid medium such as crystal rather than the multiple-tank concoction of chemicals, allows the aircraft to be scaled down from a 747 to a drone.

While the LPLD is an unlikely candidate for breaking the cycle on laser research timelines and cost overruns, short-range drone-based lasers potentially offer a clearer signal against other nuclear powers. The need for a drone to be closer to the target makes it clear which countries’ missiles are at risk, sending a more targeted signal to that power.

Strategic Stability Challenges

If achieved, laser improvements to missile defense capabilities would offer a targeted, unmanned defensive capability to challenge adversaries’ capabilities. Unlike current ballistic missile defense capabilities, drones would be situated closer to the adversary launching the missiles, not the potential target of the missiles.5 Directed energy weapons like this may solve one of the issues plaguing current U.S. and allied missile defense efforts – China and Russia both claim that U.S. ballistic missile defenses target them, and not North Korea.6 By closing the distance between the offensive and defensive capability, drone-based missile defense would send a clearer signal as to the intended party.

This potential disruption of a nuclear attack prior to boost-phase would change the playing field. If countries can destroy nuclear missiles early in their flight, it may spark the need for technological advancements in offensive capabilities as well, to avoid missile defense capabilities like the LPLD. China’s state media already claims that current missile defense efforts amount to an arms race.7 Continued progress in new missile defense technologies could result in U.S. adversaries committing more resources to offensive capabilities.

Additionally, drone-based lasers complicate the picture by introducing the unmanned component to nuclear defenses. Unlike the cancelled Airborne Laser, Patriot or Aegis Ashore batteries, drones relocate the operators from the physical battlespace. Unmanned systems for missile defense would keep service members out of harm’s way, as missile defenses would be a likely target early in a conflict. Unlike offensive drone capabilities, the lack of personnel in an LPLD for missile defense should not generate the argument that removing the operator from the physical battlefield lowers the threshold for use. As a defensive capability, the threshold for use remains the same regardless of physical presence – as a response to adversaries’ use.

These systems should be pursued alongside current missile defense programs. While recent technological advances offer a better promise of directed energy weapons, they do not offer an immediate solution. LPLD and similar programs in research and development may change current nuclear deterrence relationships. Discussing the impacts can help determine how we choose to field and use these systems.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Science Applications International Corporation.


    1. Patrick Tucker, “Pentagon Requesting $66M for Laser Drones to Shoot Down North Korean Missiles,” Defense One, February 12, 2018. http://www.defenseone.com/technology/2018/02/pentagon-requesting-66-million-laser-drones-shoot-down-north-korean-missiles/145939/.
    2. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “GMD Defense Hits ICBM Target, Finally,” Breaking Defense, May 30, 2017, https://breakingdefense.com/2017/05/missile-defense-hits-icbm-target-success-rate-now-50/.
    3. Katie Drummond, “Rip, Raygun: Pentagon’s Laser Plane Laid to Rest,” Wired, February 21, 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/02/airborn-laser-rip/.
    4. Drummond, “Rip Raygun.”
    5. Tucker, “Pentagon Requesting $66M for Laser Drones…”
    6. Pickrell, Ryan, “China and Russia Hate America’s Missile Defense Systems for a Very Simple Reason,” The National Interest, June 1, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/china-russia-hate-americas-missile-defense-systems-very-20949
    7. Ibid.
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