Countering Hypersonic Threats with Directed Energy

From the Editor: On Monday we presented an article explaining the physics behind hypersonic technology and potential future applications for its use. In this article, the author presents an argument for a plausible defense for countering hypersonic threats through the use of directed energy (DE). The following article is edited from Hypersonic Threats to the Homeland: Strategic Options published by Air University in March 2017.

By Henry R. Jeffress


Hypersonic weaponry, defined as weapons capable of traveling at speeds above Mach 5, shifts the strategic calculus of decision makers in the world, increases stand-off capabilities of enemies, and dramatically alters the deterrence equation of international actors. It is paramount the US accelerate its development of directed energy weapons (DEW) and guard against the emergence of hypersonic threats from Russia and China. In turn, hypersonic weapons will destabilize nuclear deterrence and revolutionize future warfare; therefore, the US must employ an offset strategy to balance against this threat. DEWs offer a feasible approach to countering hypersonic weapons.

The Hypersonic Threat

Decision space is critical for reflection when complex problems occur. Without ample time; poor decision making can lead to catastrophic results. Hypersonic weapons greatly reduce reaction time. Any weapon of this caliber presents tactical, operational, and strategic challenges for warriors and leaders of any nation. Recent research and development (R&D) breakthroughs with hypersonic weapons have occurred with cruise missiles and boost-glide intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) hypersonic weapons. Currently, Russia, China, India and the US are in competition for this emergent technology. Due to the emergence of nuclear capable hypersonic precision weapons, potential exists for destabilization of mutually assured destruction equations. The unforeseen security implications of decreased second strike capability within nation states further complicates nuclear deterrence in the world. If a nation state can attack all geo-strategic locations of another country before the enemy launches a counter strike, how will negotiations be affected? What if this nation is Russia or China and they possess the ability to place nuclear weapons on Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in less than twenty minutes? These questions indicate that the current nuclear triad of the US may not be enough to counterbalance the hypersonic threat. US leadership must decide how it will address the threat of hypersonic weapons and outfit the nation’s warriors with a suitable offset strategy to counter this emergent threat.

A balance of power shift, or at a minimum a contest, is occurring in military technology with the emergence of hypersonic weapons. It is evident that China is making great strides in this area, having successfully built a hypersonic wind tunnel in 2014 and achieved speeds of Mach 4 through Mach 9. Imagine a world where national decision makers are warned of a possible nuclear missile launch with a potential impact time in Washington D.C. within minutes. This is a significant reduction in reaction time; albeit a hypothetical situation, one must consider if the bureaucracy of the DOD or the executive branch is prepared for threat validation and response within a matter of minutes. Is the US government capable of a decision cycle within this timeframe? According to multiple sources, Russia is estimated to field hypersonic missiles by the year 2020 capable of travel more than five times the speed of sound with ultra-maneuverable re-entry vehicles able to penetrate back into the earth’s atmosphere. On October 25, 2016, Russia successfully tested a hypersonic aircraft known as “article 4202;” it travelled Mach 15–over 11,500 miles per hour! If this hypersonic aircraft flew from Moscow to Washington D.C. traveling approximately 4,900 miles, at speeds of Mach 15, it would reach D.C. in just over twenty-five minutes! Although current ICBMs are capable of reaching the US in approximately 30 minutes from Russia, hypersonic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft have the ability to fly within the atmosphere. The existence of mobile hypersonic missiles on different platforms degrade the US’ capability to predict enemy tactics, detect launches, and deter threats against the homeland. These implications hamper strategic calculations of US decision makers, constrain options to intercept/destroy hypersonic missiles, and reduce strategic threat warning time for our nation. It is vital our nation’s leadership seek capabilities to preserve decision space, counter the hypersonic threat, and provide defense options to counter the speed and agility of these emerging hypersonic threats.

Countering the Threat

Speed and agility are key components in hypersonic weapons and the proliferation of such a capability will drastically alter warfare; therefore, an agile and integrated defense posture provides a feasible response to emerging hypersonic threats. As an alternative to counter hypersonic weapons, DEWs have increased in capability recently and offer a valid response. DEWs range from various types of lasers to microwave weapons. R&D breakthroughs with free electron and fiber lasers have increased laser power while reducing size for military applications. The military has begun to realize the potential advantages DEWs offer combat systems. For example, the Navy has increased R&D for DE defense systems which provide a feasible offset strategy against hypersonic missiles.

The US Navy deployed a directed energy weapon onboard the USS Ponce in 2014 and intends to increase future laser defense systems to 150 kilowatts (kW). The Laser Weapons System (LaWS) is currently capable of targeting drones with a power output of 30 kW. The US Navy plans to increase LaWS’ power and could potentially boost its capabilities to an anti-ship weapon. Innovations in laser technology enable the military capability to target, track, and concentrate intense energy on aircraft and flying weapons today. Hypersonic missiles construct a difficult problem for any defensive system and if they are required to intercept an ICBM; they may need to be forward deployed in order to target the vehicle in the boost phase of flight before the vehicle reaches hypersonic speeds because targeting and energy delivery are exponentially more difficult on vehicles traveling at hypersonic speeds. The US military will need a defensive system adaptive enough to intercept ICBMs and other hypersonic vehicles like cruise missiles in the near future. A collaborative effort of commercial and publicly funded R&D will produce the best opportunity for a game changing technological breakthrough in directed energy weapons like the latest laser innovations over the past decade.

Laser innovations over time have increased the destructive potential of military weapons with the speed of engagement. The capability to target, track, and engage at the speed of light without any recoil, smoke trail, or projectiles fundamentally changes the tactical, operational, and strategic environment. The application of destructive power from a distance happens near simultaneously from laser initiation to target impact and soldiers on the battlefield will find difficulty locating the source of the laser. Difficulty in target acquisition or attribution will provide unique changes to the fog and friction of war. The deployment of laser weapons systems may reduce logistical needs for munitions storage and alter planning assumptions dramatically as well. Future strategists must incorporate laser weapons systems into their ends, ways, means, and risks equations. Current laser technologies may require larger vehicles in order to generate the high power outputs able to destroy robust targets; however, companies like Lockheed Martin have developed plans for smaller weapons grade high power fiber lasers. These innovations have enormous implications for future developments, and investments in R&D will help bridge the gap from the defensive systems of today to the integrated directed energy defensive or offensive systems of tomorrow.

Today, laser systems have also been integrated into defensive systems such as Lockheed Martin’s Air Defense Anti-Munitions (ADAM) system. This ground based system protects soldiers against rocket threats and utilizes a 10 kW laser with an effective range out to about one nautical mile. As the defense industry continues improvements and expands laser capabilities, the US must take advantage and capitalize on these innovations. As laser power output increases and size is reduced, the military must incorporate laser technology into aircraft, ships, submarines, land vehicles, and ground-based facilities. The presence of integrated laser defensive systems abroad at overseas bases, on ships at sea, in the air, on alert aircraft and on submarines produce a layered defensive capability which increases the possibilities of successfully countering a hypersonic threat.

The costs of R&D might initially detract the casual observer from the overall benefits of DE systems; however, the potential exists to save funds through efficiency at later dates, as budget experts factor in lifecycle costs. Although it might cost billions of dollars for the initial production of weapons systems, there will be significantly less costs in munitions expenses. Instead of spending money to replenish rockets, bullets, and missiles, soldiers will just recharge laser weapons. Instead of incurring maintenance costs for ordnance and munitions storage expenses budget dollars can be saved and repurposed elsewhere since lasers have unlimited magazines. The most recent price tag on a US Navy laser system was $53 million with a ceiling of $93 million in a contract with Northrup Grumman. It is estimated it should cost about one dollar per shot of a laser systems capable of targeting drones and small boats. If for some hypothetical reason, the price per laser shot is increased to one thousand dollars per shot, it still pales in comparison to the cost of a Patriot Battery PAC-3 missile cost of $3.43 million per copy in 2012 dollars. Munitions expenses alone make DE weapons development a feasible strategic choice for the US and these weapons will compliment weapons systems already in the US inventory.

Through the creation of a global integrated DE defense grid, US leaders could incorporate domestic land-based DE facilities along the coastal regions of the US. Such facilities will serve as point defense assets for Homeland Security while simultaneously becoming a catalyst for job creation. These facilities could be integrated into early warning systems for response to hypersonic threats. The integration of DE defensive systems with Space-Based Infrared Sensors (SBIRS) and early warning radars already in operation will save costs. By capitalizing on Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system capabilities already in existence and coordinated use of platforms in air, space, land, and sea the US may achieve the strategic ends it desires for maintenance deterrence equations and international order. Through proper investment in R&D of DE systems, US leaders can fulfill their sacred duty to the public trust and defend the homeland against the emergence of hypersonic threats.


As the hypersonic era approaches and strategists attempt to secure a US victory, the strategic potential of DEWs must be harnessed. Future strategists must prepare for potential contingencies in the hypersonic world or risk defeat. Significant limitations still exist for current laser defensive system technology in regards to power depletion over distance. R&D support is required to overcome DEW limitations; therefore, the strategy for defense of the homeland should incorporate a mixture of kinetic and non-kinetic defensive systems to bridge the gap in technology and capability. Military defensive systems should include a blended architecture integrating Patriot missiles systems, THAAD systems, and DEW for hypersonic projectile interception in multiple flight regimes. The sustainment and improvement of legacy systems along with DE platforms will provide built in redundancy along with improved capability for the Homeland Defense mission. As our nation prepares for a hypersonic future and invests in an offset strategy; it would be prudent for strategists to prepare for setbacks as the US develops DEW capability.

Henry Jeffress is an F-16 pilot in the United States Air Force. He has served as the Director of Operations and Commanded at the squadron level.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US government.


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