The Las Vegas Review Journal has an article on boost phase missile defence based on airborne lasers.
The title suggests that the Pentagon is rushing the system for a looming North Korean ICBM test, but this is not a serious contention and nor is it backed up by the content of the article.
Of course, during the heyday of “Star Wars” or Reagan’s SDI programme directed energy interception, through high powered lasers and particle beams, was much discussed and, rightly, much lampooned. The BMD system as it exists now, though multi-layered, is based on kinetic energy interception ie “hit to kill.”
In the early days of the incantation of the current BMD system the US had an airborne laser programme which planned to use powerful lasers fired from converted 747s to intercept Iranian or North Korean ICBMs in the boost phase of their flight. The airborne laser programme was discontinued, although research continued which is essentially what the LVR Journal is reporting on, and the National Academy of Sciences published a detailed study that provided a damning critique of the whole idea.
The advantage of lasers is that they travel at the speed of light much faster than an ICBM which typically, in the boost phase, travels at 7km/sec enabling, theoretically, quick interception from a distance away. But boost phase laser interception from a manned or unmanned aircraft poses challenges. The beam must be of sufficient power to disable a missile, and the lasers discussed in the article are not high powered, but more importantly boost phase interception is highly constrained by time considerations. The system would need to identify, verify, and track a missile launch in time for the drone, in this case, to be in position to fire at the target.
That’s a bridge too far.
For solid fuelled ICBMs, which typically have greater acceleration than liquid fuelled, that time is of the order of 150sec. North Korea’s KN-11 Mod 1 MRBM test showed that Pyongyang is moving toward solid fuelled engines as the engines of choice for long range missiles.
Nothing in the report suggests that the criticisms of the National Academy of Sciences have since been rendered invalid.
What is much more interesting, however, are the comments of BMD supporters and activists that appear in the report. They see the drone programme as a shield behind which they can revive directed energy BMD as a concept, so that directed energy interception research programmes would not be limited to the drone based research programme.
A picture is emerging of what hawks would like to do with BMD and they see Trump and a Republican controlled Congress as representing a golden opportunity
1.) Expand its official remit beyond North Korea and Iran
2.) Revive space based interception
3.) Revive directed energy interception
In other words, they want BMD to move beyond what during the Clinton era was called NMD toward a mini SDI.
Whilst we are on the topic of North Korea, it appears as if the US and North Korea will be engaging in Track 1.5 diplomacy, between high North Korean officials (1) and former high US officials (0.5), and whilst that is occurring I doubt whether North Korea will test an ICBM.
Of course, joint manoeuvres between South Korea and the US, which have in recent years simulated more aggressive operational manoeuvre, are looming.
The track 1.5 process can do much more than an airborne laser to prevent a North Korean ICBM test.