This overview, prepared by the rapporteur, describes several important scoping conditions on the subject matter that was presented and discussed at this workshop but may not be obvious from the TOR. It then describes a set of themes and major points that recurred frequently in the participants’ discussions—often across two or all three of the 2-day sessions.
For this workshop, “directed energy” refers to both coherent light beams produced by lasers and directed beams of microwave radiation. Although the workshop title and the TOR refer to directed energy broadly, the focus throughout the workshop, with the Air Force topic champion’s consent, was on directed energy for weapons applications, not lower-power applications for directed energy such as laser designators or lasers used primarily as sensor components (for example, laser direction and range-finding, or LADAR, applications). In short, the workshop participants discussed high-energy laser (HEL) and high-power microwave (HPM) technologies primarily for applications of the energy beam as a weapon. There was some discussion of HEL for laser communications, and some participants noted possibilities for laser DEW systems to have additional specialized roles as sensors, etc.
A second important constraint on scope was that neither offensive nor defensive DEW capabilities for space-based assets were discussed in any of the workshop sessions. Sponsor representatives at the session agreed that neither offensive capability against space-based targets nor defensive capability deployed in space-based assets were within the scope of the workshop.
DEW capabilities of other nations, existing or in development, were addressed at each of the three sessions in at least one presentation as well as in discussions. An important asymmetry, noted multiple times by multiple participants, is that other nations’ DEW efforts are largely focused on ground-based (or ship-based) weapons for defense against airborne attacks, whereas ground-based defense of U.S. bases or other assets—including Air Force bases—from air attack is not an Air Force responsibility.2 Although U.S. Army programs for
2The foreign airborne HEL systems that were discussed appear to be intended as antisatellite weapons and therefore were outside the scope of the workshop as a potential U.S. Air Force capability.
land-based defensive DEW systems, U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) programs for high-altitude DEW systems, and U.S. Navy programs for ship-based DEW systems were presented and discussed, the emphasis for Air Force applications was on aircraft-based DEW capabilities. To paraphrase a remark made by the chair on this point, “They [other nations] are playing a home [defense] game, we [the U.S. Air Force] are playing an away game, and we have to be able to fly our DEW systems there.”
The workshop planning committee provided general guidance on the desired format and content of presentations to the presenters invited for Session 1 and Session 2. For Session 3, individual presenters were asked to address specific topics or questions. The general guidance for Session 1 and Session 2, as well as the presenter-specific guidance for Session 3, are included in Chapter 3.
A number of themes emerged from individuals’ comments and the discussions during the first session and were iterated, with varying amounts of refinement, extension, or revision, by additional individual comments during the second and third sessions. After the first session on February 27-28, the rapporteur drafted a set of emerging themes and discussion points, on which the participants of the second session (March 18-19) were asked to comment. The rapporteur integrated these comments under the draft theme headings and summarized additional recurring themes from the second session. The participants in the third session were asked to comment on this elaborated set of themes and discussion points. After the third session, the rapporteur reviewed all of the captured input and used it as the basis for the following overview.
As noted in the Introduction, this thematic overview, created by the rapporteur, is intended to give readers a condensed view of 6 days’ of discussion by a changing set of workshop participants. No consensus, implied or explicit, among the workshop participants is represented here. For some themes, dissenting views and differences of opinion have been included because they help to inform that theme and illustrate the range of views expressed. But a lack of stated disagreement or differences of views on a particular point does not imply there were none. For this overview, silence on any particular point does not imply consent. The order in which themes are presented represents neither a priority ordering nor the temporal order in which they emerged.
Theme 1. What are the reasons that the Air Force is not adopting DEW systems? Why are the products from Air Force (and other) DEW research and development (R&D) programs not being operationalized for Air Force applications?
At the opening of the first session, the chair posed a version of theme 1 as part of his initial comments on the workshop context. During the workshop, several distinct categories of reasons, which are not mutually exclusive, were suggested and discussed:
- The Air Force may not be considering the right DEW applications and concepts of operations (CONOPSs).
- The technology may not be sufficiently mature in aspects that are key to operational capability.
- DEW may not have credibility with the warfighter. The warfighter may not understand or accept the opportunities offered by DEW capabilities.
- The DEW S&T community has perhaps delayed moving from limited demonstration of capability to a practical, operational capability (“kicking the operational can down the road”).
- There are challenges (or obstacles) in institutional processes that may have kept the technologically feasible opportunities in DEW from moving to operational capability.
Comments and views voiced by workshop participants on these five general reasons for why DEW R&D results have not resulted in operational capability for the Air Force are described under subordinate themes 1.1 through 1.5, respectively.
Theme 1.1 Is the Air Force considering the right DEW applications and CONOPS?
This theme first appeared during the first presentation of the first session, when Dr. Janet Fender asked if Air Force DEW programs have been addressing the most critical operational challenges for the Air Force and for national defense. In the discussion at the end of that first day, the following points were made:
- Have CONOPSs, which take advantage of the unique capabilities provided by DEWs, been defined for DEWs? “We need to address how DEW capability would be used differently,” said one participant, who suggested self-defense for large aircraft (e.g., tankers or AWACS) in a nonpermissive environment as an example of wider CONOPSs than were typically considered. Several others agreed.
- Instead of DEW concepts being touted as a one-for-one replacement for conventional options, one participant suggested, look for other advantages directed energy brings and how to use it in new ways. Again, several other participants affirmed this point.
- With respect to the Counter-electronics HPM Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), multiple participants across all three sessions saw it as a DEW capability with a clearly defined CONOPSs: nonkinetic counter-electronics (NKCE) of value in operations short of kinetic engagement (e.g., bombing the targeted facilities), where subsequent rapid restoration of a target’s electronics capability, as well as denial of attribution, might be operational objectives (Figure 1-1). One constraint on CHAMP that several participants noted was that the number of rounds potentially available through the proposed rapid acquisition program (essentially, refurbished cruise missiles being retired from the inventory) would provide, at most, a raid capability, rather than a campaign-level capability. (CHAMP is discussed further below, under Themes 1.2 and 3.2.)
FIGURE 1-1 Notional CONOPS for an NCKE missile such as CHAMP. SOURCE: Robert Peterkin, Chief Scientist, Directed Energy, Air Force Research Laboratory, “Assessment of Directed Energy Research and Development for U.S. Air Force Applications,” presentation to the workshop on February 27, 2013.
- A view expressed at the end of Day 1, Session 1, is that the operational community needs to better understand the trade space for DEW versus kinetic solutions (i.e., bullets, bombs, or explosive-delivering missiles). Several participants in later sessions agreed with this point, but there were a range of opinions on what that trade space might in fact look like.
— For example, a participant commented during the third session review of the first-session themes that operational commanders, specifically Combatant Commanders of the Joint Combat Commands (COCOMs), should identify needs that cannot be met by conventional capabilities [kinetic capabilities], so that DEW would be filling an urgent [unmet] need, rather than replacing a current capability. The same participant also said that there are lower-power HEL missions (e.g., tens of kilowatts) that are needed, but he had not seen, during the three sessions, a “must-do” Air Force mission that requires a high-power laser (100-150 kW) on an aircraft. As further explanation of his point, he said that the size, weight, and power (SWaP) characteristics of HEL systems that are ready today do not support an aircraft-borne high-power laser DEW. In his view, the closest such capability, DARPA’s Endurance program, was still at least 5 years from being ready for transition to an operational capability.
— Also during the third session, a different participant said that, as the mission context for the Air Force moves away from environments that are permissive (U.S. air superiority assured), the role of DEW may be to complement kinetic energy weapons— for example, in allowing aircraft to stay on station longer. Due to the potential of deep magazines provided by DEWs, sparser utilization of kinetic energy weapons could be achieved by supplementing them with DEW.
— Starting in Session 1, multiple participants mentioned countering the digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) challenge as important. But while some participants suggested this could be a good early application for an airborne HEL system, others countered that there were alternative approaches to counter-DRFM (see Theme 3.2). As one participant said at the end of Session 3, counter-DRFM is a near-term capability that the Air Force needs, and a laser-based counter-DRFM capability might be possible with today’s technology as this capability does not require high power.
- At the end of day 1 of Session 3, a participant said that near-term HEL capability that could be retrofitted on general-purpose aircraft (e.g., fighters) was in the 30 kW range. (Other participants suggested a range from 10 to 50 kW.) At higher power, he said, the platform would have to be for a special mission. He contrasted this situation for HEL DEW with CHAMP, which he saw as substantially changing the probability of mission effectiveness [for certain types of counter-electronics attack]. The same did not seem to this participant to be true for any of the laser applications briefed to that point in the workshop.
Theme 1.2 Is the technology sufficiently mature in aspects that are key to operational capability?
In Sessions 2 and 3, several participants said they had difficulty seeing a near-term or even mid-term HEL application for the Air Force. (See, for example, the closing discussions for Day 1 and Day 2 of Session 2.) They often contrasted the prospects for HEL for Air Force applications with CHAMP as a good near-term prospect for an HPM system and also with ground- and ship-based DEWs for the Army and Navy (see Theme 3.3 discussion).
A technology maturity issue that arose early in the first session, which continued to be brought up during Sessions 2 and 3, concerns the SWaP requirements for HEL systems of sufficient power or energy to add paradigm-changing weapons capability to Air Force aircraft. At the end of Day 1 of Session 1, a participant from Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) expressed the view that part of the reason why HEL systems have not been transitioned to operational capability is that DEW programs have tried to take the technology as it was and force it onto an existing platform without doing the SWaP analysis for practical application. This participant suggested that the Air Force continue working on small laser systems suited to aircraft installation, working off what the Navy and Army are doing with applications that allow larger, heavier systems. (See Theme 3.3, which follows up on this suggestion.)
By the end of Session 3, a number of the participants in that session commented favorably on the term-term potential for lower-power (30-50 kW) pod-based laser systems with counter-sensor applications, such as directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) and combat ID. (In some comments, the combat ID role seemed to include counter-DRFM.) The DARPA
briefing on the Endurance program seemed to convince these participants that a pod-based HEL system for attacking the guidance sensors on electro-optical and/or infrared guided air-to-air missiles (i.e., HEL as an anti-electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) missile weapon) could meet the SWaP constraints and become operational in the near term (within 5 years). There was extended discussion of what the Air Force could do with a pod-packaged HEL system in this power range, and even as low as 10 kW. Aircraft self defense with a pod was also discussed among the participants.
With respect to challenges for moving HPM technology more rapidly forward, a participant noted during the Session 3 final discussion that the U.S. budget for HPM DEW technology and systems is about $30 million a year, whereas the budget of the People’s Republic of China for HPM weapons research is around $300 million.
Theme 1.3 Does DEW lack credibility with the warfighter? Does the warfighter understand and accept the opportunities offered by DEW capabilities?
The views expressed during the workshop on this theme were diverse, and some were in direct conflict with others, even when participants agreed that DEW does lack credibility. Particularly during Session 1, several participants said or implied that a lack of understanding of DEW by Air Force warfighters was an important factor in why DEW technology has not yet achieved operational capability. But several other participants said or implied that the DEW R&D community lacked credibility because of overpromising in the past, either with respect to ultimate technology capability or (more often) with respect to when capability objectives and maturity levels would be achieved. (On the latter, see Theme 1.4.) As the discussions progressed during Session 1, and particularly through Session 2 and 3, this direct conflict gave way to more reasoned perspectives that typically brought together aspects of the initial, radically opposed views.
A good example of this evolution is a Session 1 comment from a former warfighter now working in threat intelligence: This is a very complex technological field, he said, and the complexity gives a lot of options, which require a lot of resources [to pursue]. A communications plan is needed to explain the options to the operational community and decision makers. Another former warfighter said that, to move DEW forward, the R&D community needs a “win.” To get credibility, the community needs to identify a winning application and get it operational. This view was affirmed in various comments by a number of participants from different roles and backgrounds during Session 2 and 3, including technologists and technology systems managers. One participant added the caveat that “a win is needed in an area that needs a win. Do not try to do something [with DEW] that kinetics already does well enough.”
Diversity in views continued throughout the workshop on the best way to establish credibility by delivering a win, although the suggestions were typically not contradictory or mutually exclusive. During Session 1, an early suggestion was that, for advanced concepts, it may be better to aim explicitly at a capability demonstration as the objective, rather than an operational capability as the outcome. The point of this suggestion was to avoid the appearance of overpromising. But many participants thought that getting beyond even capability demonstrations to a prototype, which would be closer to an operational capability,
was both needed (for a win) and feasible. (For more on prototypes as the objective of R&D efforts, see Theme 3.1.) The missiles fabricated for the CHAMP Joint Concept Demonstration (JCT) ground and flight testing were noted by several participants as a good example of what they meant by a prototype. And the number of comments that favored aiming for a prototype increased during Session 2 and 3. Whereas the chair had agreed in Session 1 that DEW R&D programs may not always lead to operational capability, by Session 3 he was pressing more strongly for getting to a prototype: “Unless we partner the science with integration engineering to make a prototype, we will never lead to a fielded system.”
There continued to be recognition, expressed in several ways by different participants, that educating and informing warfighters and decision makers about DEW opportunities and challenges would be important and probably essential. In the discussion at the end of Day 1 of Session 3, a participant said that there is still a resistance [in the Air Force culture] to changing the fundamental phenomenology of Air Force weapons. Several views were offered on ways to change the perception of DEW. One line of argument suggested by a participant was that, since other countries are fielding HEL weapon systems and moving out on DEW systems (for example, the Russians have an airborne laser that they say will go operational), should not the Air Force be moving forward with DEW capabilities for its missions? The participant noted that the U.S. intelligence community is undertaking a major study of foreign DEW capabilities and R&D activities. However, other participants questioned the force of that argument, noting the asymmetry between the “home-field advantage” of large-SWaP HEL systems for ground or shipboard defense compared with the Air Force’s interest in systems suitable for installing in aircraft.
Theme 1.4 Has the DEW community been, in some sense, kicking the can down the road, in a way that has delayed transitioning technology to operational systems?
The participants in the Day 2 wrap-up discussion at the close of Session 3 returned to this issue, which had been raised initially during Dr. Fender’s presentation early in Session 1 and was discussed again during the Day 1 wrap-up discussion. Several participants, at different times during the workshop, voiced the view that the DEW R&D community has tended to go from a fairly successful concept demonstration to working on a more promising solution that was further down the road, pursuing advances in the underlying technology rather than focusing on getting to an operational capability, even if limited. During Session 1, one participant expressed this view as a pattern of industry [e.g., military contractors] doing a great demonstration, then starting over from a new requirement set. A somewhat different take, from a DEW technologist, was that laboratories like to work on exciting, new stuff, but dealing with cost and other issues for operationalizing a system are not as exciting.
This perspective was often tied in with suggestions that the R&D community needs to focus now on getting to prototypes, not just concept demonstrations (see Theme 3.1 for more on this line of thought). CHAMP was mentioned several times by different participants as a good example of how to proceed toward a prototype that the warfighter community could see as an operational capability.
During the Session 3 wrap-up, a somewhat different rationale for delays by the R&D community was suggested. A participant asked if part of the problem might be risk aversion
over testing and failing a test, rather than experimenting, implementing an initial limited capability, and moving forward through incremental improvements to that capability. Again, discussion of this thought led to comments on the value of trying to get to prototypes and not just technology or concept demonstrations. Finally, the workshop participants also discussed at the end of Session 3 the possible resistance to DEWs from vested interests (for example, current missile and gun manufacturers).
Theme 1.5. Are process improvements needed to enable transition of mature DEW technology into operational capabilities?
This theme originated in a question the chair posed to the Session 1 participants during the wrap-up discussion on Day 2: “What are the three most important process improvements to allow transition of mature capability?” Several comments at that time related to improving understanding in the user (warfighter) community of DEW potential capabilities and development status and challenges. For example, one participant said the R&D community needs to get the message out to set the stage for the need for DEW; he stressed the importance of communicating an integrated picture. A participant with an operational and military intelligence background suggested that the community needs to communicate to operators in language they understand—lay out the vector for where the technology advocate wants to go with a capability and then deliver on it.
A different take on process improvement is represented in a Session 2 comment from the chair on this theme. He said that it does not appear that the existing coordinating boards and processes that should be relevant to directing and transitioning DEW R&D activities are being used or have been absorbed in other priorities. During Session 3, he again said that the Air Force and DoD do have processes to get warfighters, AFRL, and DARPA together to discuss options, but it appeared to him that these processes are not being exercised. The processes that would help in transitioning DEW concepts into operational capability in a reasoned way are not being followed. Several other participants agreed on the importance of getting the R&D community (AFRL and others), military contractors with DEW expertise, and Air Force operational leaders together. One participant said that the Air Force’s Flagship Capabilities Council (FCC) has all the right people on it; the general officers on the FCC could make decisions to move forward toward transiting DEW. He agreed with the chair that the right processes exist, but they are not happening as intended.
Several participants, at different times, called for a capabilities-based assessment that would include DEW options for critical Air Force capabilities along with conventional kinetic alternatives. One former warfighter and acquisition manager who voiced this need for a capabilities-based assessment added that the technical, tactical, and financial values of DEW options need to be demonstrated. The Air Force used to have a process for setting S&T priorities, he said, and that process needs to be revived. A number of other participants agreed with this view. During Session 3, a participant similarly noted that DOD is not doing the same kind of gap analysis studies that used to be done.
Digging deeper into the issue of current priority-setting processes and how well they work, some comments implied that the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) process was an impediment to transitioning good DEW concepts, and some other
approach should be sought. But other participants countered that JCIDS was not going away, and DEW advocates had to learn to work the process—for example, by identifying mission requirements that reasonably mature DEW concepts (not blue-sky future possibilities) alone could meet or that were unequivocally superior to conventional alternatives. One participant saw a breakdown in the requirements process relevant to this technology area; another agreed that there were process breakdowns, but he also faulted cultural issues within the Air Force and DOD such as conflicts with established equities, comfort levels in the organizations, and lack of understanding of directed energy, all of which interfere with adopting disruptive technologies like DEW.
Other participants noted that the legislation that created the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office (HEL-JTO) also created a High Energy Technology Council, chaired by a senior OSD official, to provide policy-level oversight of the HEL-JTO. He and several other participants opined that this council seems to be taking a narrower view of the scope of the HEL-JTO than the authorizing legislation called for. What the role of the HEL-JTO should be was a recurring issue that also pertains to Theme 3.1. After one of the discussions of the appropriate role for the HEL-JTO, a participant said the larger point is that the limited amount of funding available for DEW work needs to be spent more wisely. That will take leadership, he added. Several participants thought that the leadership needed should come from OSD or a DoD-wide entity. Others thought that support from several Combatant Commanders could provide sufficient mission pull.
During Session 1 of the workshop, several participants, including the chair, were favorably impressed by progress at the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) on a ground-based solid-state HEL system as a defensive weapon to protect bases from incoming rocket, artillery, and mortar rounds (counter-rocket, artillery and mortar, or C-RAM). During that session, several participants suggested that air base defense might be a good early application of HEL for the Air Force. By the beginning of Session 2, however, the chair stated clearly that ground-based defense of U.S bases or other overseas military assets was a legally mandated Army mission, not an Air Force mission.
Many participants accepted this statutory reality, but the Air Force’s interest in and potential responsibility for defense of overseas air bases recurred several times as a topic of extended discussion during both Session 2 and 3.3 Although none of the other participants expressed disagreement with or qualified the chair’s comment that “the Air Force has a vital interest in [overseas] air base defense,” there were a number of opinions expressed on how it might pursue this vital interest. A number of participants agreed that the Air Force would need to be more active in ensuring adequate capability for air base defense than just following what the Army was doing; some stronger form of collaboration would be needed. Some participants thought that Air Force funding support for Army work on ground-based HEL, as a defense
against a comprehensive set of airborne threats, was worth considering to ensure that air bases could be defended. Others strongly disagreed, arguing that providing funding support for what was an assigned Army mission would just further drain Air Force resources needed for other priorities. Still other participants thought the Air Force may need to do development and system transition of its own, if the Army’s base defense systems were not demonstrably successful against threats such as cruise missiles, longer-range ballistic missiles, aircraft, and potential threats such as swarms of armed RPAs. In the view of one participant, the Air Force should be as focused on air base defense for self preservation as the Navy is on protecting aircraft carriers.
Day 1 of Session 3 began with a presentation on Air-Sea Battle CONOPS by representatives from the Air-Sea Battle Office in HAF/A5X. The workshop planning committee prepared guidance for this presentation, which was intended to clarify the issues about overseas air base defense that participants had raised and discussed in Sessions 1 and 2. However, the presentation did little to resolve the fundamental question of the best way for the Air Force to pursue this “vital interest.”
As one might guess, the participants’ various suggestions for a path forward to transition DEW R&D results to an operational capability depended in part on which of the answers to the Theme 1 questions seemed most relevant to an individual participant. The following four subthemes are discussed below:
- What R&D is needed to move DEW technology forward?
- Which technically mature systems could become fielded operational capability in the near term?
- How might HEL applications for the Air Force be leveraged from HEL development programs of the Army and Navy?
- Are there particular topics or issues related to Air Force DEW applications that would benefit from a further exploration through a targeted workshop or study?
Theme 3.1 What R&D is needed to move DEW technology forward?
During Day 1 of Session 1, the participants were briefed on DEW R&D initiatives at AFRL, the HEL-JTO, the Army SMDC, and DARPA. In the discussion at the end of that day, several participants highlighted what they saw as common R&D issues that could be addressed collaboratively to move forward faster and with greater cost-effectiveness. A comment that was supported by a number of participants was that HEL improvements in such areas as power storage, cooling (thermal management), and solid-state diode efficiency could help “across the board” and could influence how HEL capability looks to decision makers outside the R&D community.
While a number of participants saw work on these common technology enablers as a good role for the HEL-JTO, several participants supported a comment, made during Session 3,
that the HEL-JTO has not been taking on some technology development that, under its charter, it should be doing. Are the resources being spent well on technology development, this participant asked, or should the HEL-JTO be focusing more on technology demonstrations? Another participant thought the HEL-JTO work on the Joint High Power Solid State Laser (JHPSSL) and the Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI) had been valuable in moving the HEL field forward, but too much of the rest of the HEL-JTO portfolio was spread around on a large number of small efforts that collectively did not have much impact.
A comment relevant to Theme 1.5 was that, although the HEL-JTO was meant to be an organization strong enough to bring the military services and DARPA together to make progress on HEL concepts, it has not succeeded in getting DARPA to participate actively. Another participant suggested that the OSD High Energy Council, which is supposed to provide oversight of the HEL-JTO, could exercise authority over the services and DARPA to strengthen this cross-agency and cross-service role.
During the Session 3 discussions, the HEL-JTO was mentioned in conjunction with moving DEW technology beyond demonstrations and into prototypes. As discussed under Theme 1.1, many participants suggested that aiming for prototypes of DEW systems would help get a “win” that could engage greater interest from the operational community. For example, one Session 3 comment was that militarily useful and suitable prototypes are a reasonable next step for DEW. This participant, like a number of others after the DARPA presentation, thought that a pod-based HEL system that could be fitted to selected aircraft would be a good candidate for a prototype. Another participant thought that the operational-capability goal for DEW prototypes should come from the MAJCOMs, not the laboratory.
A number of participants pointed to CHAMP as a good model for moving to a prototype. For example, one Session 3 participant noted the value of using an existing vehicle/delivery system (the older, conventional cruise missiles that were being removed from inventory) for this first operational capability, to show that the HPM technology could be packaged in a system and used. Because the CHAMP “prototype” had been developed through a JCTD, a number of participants in Session 3 discussed whether JCTDs are a good way to effect transition—there were both pros and cons expressed. For some participants, prototype systems were seen as a way to focus R&D on integration and system engineering. During Session 3, for example, the chair said he had been convinced in the course of the workshop that technical progress is being made on both HPM and HEL, but, he added, the DEW field is lacking the integration and packaging efforts to get to prototypes. Another participant, agreed, saying that a prototype means a packaged, integrated system. Yet another participant stated that the Air Force has only S&T funds for DEW, while the Army and Navy have both S&T and acquisition funds for DEW. The same participant noted that the Air Force does not have funds to transition DEW; this impacts the development of prototypes.
During all three workshop sessions, additional drivers for R&D were discussed by various workshop participants and included improvements in SWaP and employment options.
Theme 3.2 Which technically mature systems could become fielded operational capability in the near term?
Another way that views on potential paths forward were expressed was in response to a question posed by the chair at the end of the second session: “What are the three technically mature DEW systems that can go into the field in the near term?” Over the three sessions, many participants said that CHAMP was technically mature, had a clear although limited mission role for which there were not existing alternatives, and had a potential acquisition path in place that was both technically and fiscally feasible.
To many of the participants, potential HEL weapons for airborne DEW seemed likely to be further out in time than the HPM capability represented by CHAMP (see Figure 2-1).
FIGURE 2-1 Notional roles for airborne HEL weapons: offensive counter-air (OCA) and defensive counter-air (DCA). On the left is a laser communications role. On the right is a a counter-infrared search and track (IRST) role. SOURCE: David Robie, Office of the Chief Scientist, Air Combat Command. “ACC DE Enabling Concept,” presentation to the workshop on February 27, 2013.
The SWaP constraints for a HEL weapon system that could be fitted to either legacy or next-generation fighter aircraft led many participants to look at HEL systems in the lower-power range (10 to 50 kW) as the feasible option for near- or mid-term roles. As noted above, a number of participants saw a pod-based system, building on the technology represented in the DARPA Endurance program, as the most likely near-tem prospect, and several potential roles for such a system were suggested and discussed.
Early in the workshop, during Session 1, the challenge of defeating DRFMs being used to spoof the radar reflection from an adversary aircraft became a role that a number of participants thought could be a win for a HEL system. While some participants thought a
weapons-class HEL could have distinctive advantages for a secondary, counter-DRFM application, other participants noted that alternative technologies for counter-DRFM include LIDAR and LADAR (the latter using a laser in the sensor-application power range, rather than a weapon-power laser).
By Session 3, there were fewer comments favoring a counter-DRFM role for a pod-based HEL and more in favor of using this class of HEL as an anti-sensor weapon to defeat the EO/IR homing sensors of an adversary’s air-to-air missiles. Both advanced Directed Infrared Countermeasure (DIRCM) and Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasure (LAIRCM) applications were mentioned by multiple participants.
Beginning in Session 1, several participants suggested that laser-based optical communications technology (LaserComms) was a good near-term Air Force application to pursue, as it could be implemented with HEL technologies in the 10 to 50 kW range that currently have SWaP parameters within the range of feasibility for a system on legacy or planned aircraft. Although not a weapons application, LaserComms would, according to various participant comments, give HEL a near-term win (see Themes 1.1 and 1.3), build acceptance and familiarity with HEL systems within the Air Force operational culture, and begin building an infrastructure for operational maintenance and support of a HEL system on fighter-class aircraft. However, other participants noted that LaserComms still faces problems with penetrating cloud cover, heavy precipitation, and other weather conditions, so it would have to be part of a broader communications system architecture that also provided redundant systems using radio frequency communications. Another limitation that some participants noted is that a LaserComms system would only be as robust as the number of communications nodes that had the capability installed. By contrast, these participants added, a pod-based counter EO/IRST HEL weapon could be effective even if it were only installed on a few aircraft (e.g., the first-in sorties).
Theme 3.3 How might HEL applications for the Air Force be leveraged from HEL development programs of the Army and Navy?
As noted under Theme 1.2, multiple participants saw the SWaP constraints of existing DEW technologies, when packaged into a system, as a continuing challenge for weapons systems to be installed in a general-purpose aircraft such as a strike fighter or bomber. By contrast, the current SWaP parameters for HPM and high-power HEL systems were viewed as already being within the range of feasibility for land-based or ship-based weapons with sufficient power to defeat a range of threats. Thus, many participants anticipated that the existing and emerging Army and Navy programs for DEW applications will progress more quickly, with high-power DEW systems suitable for Air Force missions becoming feasible on a longer time frame. This perspective naturally led some participants to ponder how the Air Force might best leverage HEL development programs of the Army and Navy.
A Session 3 participant expressed the rationale for an incremental evolution toward higher-power weapons in the long term in this way: For HEL applications, the Air Force should be looking at lower-power lasers [within the HEL category, i.e., 10 to 50 kW of output beam power]. In the past, the Air Force was focused on megawatt-class lasers, not the lower kilowatt-
class. The Air Force needs to move incrementally, this participant suggested, from lower-power applications to higher-power applications.
In several comments on the HEL-JTO, a leveraging approach was mentioned as a reason to encourage that joint office to work on technology issues (power, thermal management, etc.) common not only to multiple Air Force HEL programs but also relevant across the HEL programs of the Army, Navy, and DARPA. A number of participants favored greater Air Force cooperation with the Army and Navy on DEW technology development but opposed commingling funds to do so.
During the Session 3 final wrap-up, a participant said he agreed with others that DEW applications are being pursued everywhere (i.e., by the Army, Navy, and DARPA and by other nations), but the S&T issue for the Air Force is where the Air Force should try to lead and where it should follow and “watch closely.”
Theme 3.4 Are there particular topics or issues related to Air Force DEW applications that would benefit from a further exploration through a targeted workshop or study?
After several of the Session 3 presentations, one participant in all three sessions suggested that the Air Force should undertake or sponsor an in-depth study on a few promising DEW alternatives, such as CHAMP. The study scope should include examining countermeasures to the capability options, an Analysis of Alternatives [or a capabilities-based assessment, if the alternatives are not at the AoA stage of maturity], and, in general, do a more in-depth assessment than this current workshop format allows. Such a study, this participant continued, would need to consider both trade-offs among alternatives for a given role and counter-actions to which they might be vulnerable. “We have only heard the positive advocates of DEW,” he said, “and no in-depth analysis,” which should be done before the Air Force “accepts, develops, and weaponizes a capability.”
Another participant suggested that a potential area for a targeted study would be the lower-power class of HEL technologies with potential for advanced active sensor applications, such as emerging solid-state laser technology for an imaging IR missile. Such an active sensor might be of value in a LADAR system to support a counter-DRFM role (also see discussion of counter-DRFM under Theme 3.2). This participant also thought the workshop had not heard enough about counter-sensor applications, which require lower power than do vehicle-shell-defeat applications of HEL. One response to this suggestion for a follow-on study was that much of the work in the counter-sensor area may be at higher levels of classification.
Yet another participant comment at the close of Session 3 was that the workshop had not touched on how DEW might work for counter-ISR applications, particularly high-flying airborne ISR assets. This comment led to discussion of using a weapon-class laser system for a long-range ISR role, as opposed to being a counter-ISR weapon. One participant suggested that, in the far term, the same laser system might be used for both “seeing and touching” an adversary’s platform (i.e., as both an active ISR sensor and a defeat weapon).
Another study suggestion during Session 3 was to examine the prospects for pulsed power HEL technology in the Air Force, and not just the continuous-wave (CW) laser technology on which most of this workshop focused. In agreeing with this suggestion, a second participant said that the progress made in CW laser technology should be acknowledged in such a study,
with pulsed power examined for what it could add to what CW systems can do. This participant was concerned that a pulsed-power laser study not foster a debate on pulsed power versus CW, which could become yet another reason to further delay going forward with prototypes (kicking the can down the road again). Several other participants agreed.
Pulsed power HEL technology was also discussed during the wrap-up on Day 2 of Session 2. One participant said that, from a warfighter (COCOM) perspective, pulsed power was interesting for a counter EO/IR missile role. Another participant added that pulsed lasers may be the only effective HEL countermeasure to the more advanced class of adversary surface-to-air missiles (“double-digit SAMs”).
A participant noted that, in the HPM area, the workshop had not addressed much other than CHAMP (i.e., the NKCE role for HPM). Another participant agreed and added that the Robert Peterkin briefing during Session 1 had included more than just the counter-electronics application of HPM, but the Air Force is looking for HPM applications that will fit on an aircraft. This participant said that the ground-based MAXPOWER demonstration was reasonably successful for countering improvised explosive devices (counter-improvised explosive device), but that is not an Air Force mission.
During the Session 3 final wrap-up, while the effectiveness of the HEL-JTO was being discussed, a participant suggested that a more complete review was needed of what the HEL-JTO should be doing; that is, what its role should be.