After three decades, the Pentagon is betting big on their belief that a dream of the Star Wars initiative may now be closer to a practical concept.
The Missile Defense Agency has offered new details about plans to develop a science fiction-sounding space-based neutral particle beam weapon to disable or destroy incoming ballistic missiles. The goal is to have a prototype system ready for a test in orbit by 2023, an ambitious schedule to demonstrate that the technology has progressed to a more useful state from when the U.S. military last explored and then abandoned the concept nearly three decades ago.
The U.S. military’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 asks for $34 million in funding for the neutral particle beam program, or NPB, according to documents released on Mar. 18, 2019. The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) wants a total of $380 million through 2023 fiscal cycle for development of the directed energy weapon. Defense One, citing unnamed U.S. officials, had been first to report the existence of the plan on Mar. 14, 2019. It’s also worth noting that Congress set out a goal of testing of at least one space-based missile defense system prototype by 2022 and the deployment of “an operational capability at the earliest practicable date” in the annual defense policy bill for the 2018 Fiscal Year.
MDA included the new-start NPB program in a larger line item called “Technology Maturation Initiatives,” which also includes requested funding for the development of laser weapons and advanced airborne sensors. It does not expect to ask for any more funds for the particle beam system through this account in Fiscal Year 2024, which would indicate plans to move it into its own dedicated funding stream at that time.
“The NPB provides a game changing space-based directed energy weapon capability for strategic missile defense,” MDA’s latest budget request says. “The NPB is a space-based, directed energy capability for homeland defense, providing a defense for boost phase and mid-course phase” of a ballistic missile’s flight.
A staple in science fiction, particle beam weapons are grounded in real science. At its most basic, an NPB requires a charged particle source and a means of accelerating them to near-light speed to create the beam itself.
When this beam of charged particles hits something it produces effects similar to that of laser, namely extreme heat on the surface of the target capable of burning a hole through certain materials depending on the strength of the weapon. If the particles are not sufficently powerful to destroy something such as a missile or reentry vehicle, they may still be able to pass through the outer shells of those targets and disrupt, damage, or destroy internal components, similar broadly to how a microwave weapon functions.
In addition, since particle beams respond different to different materials, there is the potential that the system might also have the capability to discriminate between real incoming warheads a ballistic missile has released and decoys. Seperate sensors would be necessary to observe the impacts and categorize the results. But if it worked, this would help other ballistic missile defense systems, which generally have short engagement windows to begin with, focus only on actual threats.
The characteristics of these particles would make it hard, if not impossible for an opponent to shield their weapons from the effects or otherwise employ countermeasures, short of destroying the NPB itself, as well. All of this has long made the potential of a particle beam weapon attractive, especially for missile defense.