The Pentagon's top R&D official said on Tuesday the department would push for more funding for missile defense laser research in future budgets.
“In upcoming budgets for missile defense, you’re going to see a renewed emphasis on laser scaling across several technologies, because we feel we have to do that,” Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin said at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Griffin said currently the Defense Department can produce tens of kilowatts of laser power in relatively small numbers of units and is closing in on having militarily useful directed energy weapons.
“That is within a factor of two or three of being useful on a battlefield, on an airplane, on a ship, even in space for limited purposes. That’s a useful range, so in my opinion we are no more than a few years of having, particularly in the laser world, directed energy weapons of military utility.”
However, Griffin noted a joke “in the directed energy world that these systems are the weapons of the future and always will be.”
He said he regards one of his jobs as getting real capability into operational hands “and I think we’re at most a few years from that.”
In contrast, moving to space-based directed energy ballistic missile defense weapons will require another factor of three or four to reach the megawatt class. Griffin said “that’s not right around the corner, but it’s not utterly out of reach either. We can see pathways to that.”
The research chief added the hypersonic weapon threat will require more Low Earth Orbit sensors because, with a signature a factor of 10 or 20 times less than strategic missiles, the sensor has to be “somewhat closer to the action” to be able to detect and track them.
Griffin said he wants the overall space-based missile defense sensor layer, mandated by Congress, to be “as widely distributed over as many choices of orbital regimes as we can effectively use because I want to pose the adversary such a difficult problem that they’ll choose not to fight it.”
The FY 2019 defense authorization act directed the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) director to finish plans and initiate development of a space-based missile defense sensor architecture in cooperation with the Director of National Intelligence, Air Force Space Command, and commander of Strategic Command (Defense Daily, July 27).
When asked about organizational control of missile defense platforms, Griffin said he did not think it matters who addresses a particular problem as long as it is addressed. However, he saw it as unlikely any of the services would embrace a specific missile defense capability “until and unless they have a dog in that particular fight that with which they’re co-aligned.”
Therefore, much of the capabilities designed, developed and deployed by the MDA will have to be continued to be sustained by MDA unless there is a high degree of shared utility with a particular service.
The services have their own priorities and they will align whatever money they have consistent with those priorities, and a missile defense capability “that doesn’t line up with their other priorities will not necessarily get funded,” Griffin said.
Relatedly, Griffin said he thought transferring material procurement for missile defense platforms from MDA to the services would be bad for sustaining the mission.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen and, if it did, I don’t think it’s going to be good. Asking the Navy to prioritize an SM-3 system over another carrier, that’s maybe not a fair question. Asking the Army to prioritize THAAD over another Brigade Combat Team, I mean maybe that’s not a fair question.”
These are issues of the architecture of national defense, which “maybe rise to the Secretary of Defense or office of the Secretary of Defense level, not the responsibility of a given service,” Griffin said.
So prioritizing systems like Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Standard Missile- 3 (SM-) at the DoD level, “maybe that’ll just continue.”