The Missile Defense Agency is rushing to put more solutions in the field and trying to put past failures behind them.
One of the smaller line items in the Missile Defense Agency’s $9.9 billion budget request for 2019 is also one of the most interesting: $66 million to keep developing a laser that can be mounted on a drone and used to destroy enemy missiles on the launch pad — or shortly after takeoff.
That amount includes $61 million to continue the laser-on-a-drone program, called the Low Power Laser Demonstrator, or LPLD, and $5 million to scale up its laser to sufficient destructive power.
Why does a low-power laser cost $61 million but scaling it up to sufficient power only cost $5 million? The answer lies in recent innovations in solid-state fiber lasers. Unlike highly volatile chemical lasers or less powerful solid-state bulk lasers, solid-state fiber lasers use the same sort of fiber-optic technology that forms the backbone of the information economy. Adding more power has become a matter of just adding more fiber.
Last fall, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics all received contracts for the program’s first phase; each will present its own solution to the Pentagon in the months ahead. The military will pick one winner to continue; the goal is to have something ready for testing by 2020.
So the LPLD appears to be on track. But the MDA’s budget proposal — about $2 billion greater than the 2018 request — reflects a past year of ups and downs, as well as the work ahead to overcome broad skepticism and setbacks that have some calling U.S. missile defense a paper tiger.