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Pentagon’s directed energy guru sees ‘uncomfortable choices’ ahead for military commanders

"One of the biggest challenges is simply that early part of the decision-making in that counter kill chain," according to the DOD's principal director for directed energy.
GULF OF ADEN (Dec. 14, 2021) — Amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD 27) conducts a high-energy laser weapon system demonstration on a static surface training target, Dec. 14, while sailing in the Gulf of Aden. The photograph was captured utilizing a short wave infrared lens and optical filter. (U.S. Navy photo illustration by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin Kates)

Defense Department leaders are eager for high-energy lasers to get fielded in larger numbers. However, introducing these types of systems will bring significant command-and-control challenges — particularly when they’re facing more advanced threats, according to the Pentagon’s principal director for directed energy.

DE weapons such as high-energy lasers could offer significant advantages over traditional air-and-missile defense weapons, including speed of light engagement, low cost per shot, deep magazines, precision tracking, graduated effects and increased battlespace awareness, Frank Peterkin from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering noted during a NDIA webinar Tuesday.

There are long-standing technical hurdles that laser weapon developers and integrators have had to contend with, such as beam control, thermal management, size, weight and power issues. And military leaders have expressed frustration that the department hasn’t transitioned more systems from the lab to the battlefield.

The science-and-technology aspects of DE get a lot of attention, Peterkin noted.

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However, “a drumbeat that kind of gets lost is — because we’re a new capability for directed energy systems that’s novel and not the way we fought in the past with more conventional kinetic systems in particular — we need to figure out how to do command and control in a different way. There are going to be some uncomfortable choices when we bring these systems forward where commanders who would normally shoot a missile, say relatively far to take on an incoming threat, but might have to decide [that] ‘I trust that the direct energy system will in fact engage and defeat that threat and I can reserve my more costly and more capable missile for defensive applications and other parts of the threat space,'” he said.

There are some key challenges associated with C2 integration.

“We have a new way of fighting, we have a new way of engaging targets with direct energy. Lasers and microwaves are slightly different. We don’t talk about microwaves so much. There’s different classification hurdles. But … we need to have a command-and-control capability. Not to prescribe how the services would implement the C2, but somewhere in their command and control they need to understand, well, what would the direct energy system do against this target? So now you have to know which target it is — or at least roughly the class if not the actual specific type. Do we have understanding of lethality against that target? If we don’t, can we make some assumptions given, you know, similar characteristics? Do we have a timeline for engagement for the kill chain that makes sense?” Peterkin said.

He continued: “And all of that has to be built into the combat system such that it can make those tradeoffs against other weapons that it might have available to bring to bear on that target. So I would say … one of the biggest challenges is simply that early part of the decision-making in that counter-kill chain: What is the target? Where is it going? When is it gonna get there? Do I have game against that target? And do I make sense today to be the shooter with directed energy or should I defer to something else in the layered defense?”

More transition work is also needed with regard to prototyping and experimentation, DOTMLPF-P, mission engineering and operational analysis, the industrial base and open systems architectures for the Pentagon to successfully field these technologies, he noted.

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“All of these have to get addressed in parallel and as a community for us to proceed to be, you know, true capability for the warfighter,” he said.

In recent years, the department has focused its DE efforts on “proven technology” for tactical missions, such as countering drones, rockets, artillery, mortars and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, according to the roadmap that Peterkin laid out.

However, in the future, the Pentagon wants to be able to employ directed energy systems against increasingly sophisticated threats.

In the 2025-2030 time frame, the department will be looking to use DE for tactical missions such as countering anti-ship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles and aircraft.

Beyond 2030, the plan is to evolve the tech to take on “strategic missions,” such as defending against faster-moving ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons.

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“Directed energy is basically electromagnetic radiation, whether it’s light or RF energy, and therefore travels at the speed of light. For those of you who haven’t looked up your physics books recently, for comparison, we talk about hypersonic threats being really, really fast — that’s somewhere in the 5 to 15 Mach range. The speed of light is about 100,000 times faster than anything we or anybody else is fielding with hypersonic systems. It’s really fast. And that means it can touch a threat or a target nearly instantaneously. That doesn’t necessarily mean we affect it instantaneously — there’s oftentimes a dwell time required … But that speed-of-light engagement is what particularly allows us to take on maneuverable threats because we can move electric electromagnetic beams much faster than we can ever move a defensive missile, for example. So that speed of light is a big factor,” Peterkin said.

However, developing capabilities to go after those types of threats will be a harder lift and require significant maturation of technologies, he acknowledged.

“Cruise missiles are typically going to operate in subsonic, below speed of sound to maybe slightly supersonic, with relatively known trajectories coming into a target. And in that instance, for us in the near term, that’s our first low-hanging fruit in the next step of our roadmap. And to get there, we need primarily more power in our continuous wave laser systems, and slightly better beam control than we have today. If we can get those lined up in the next few years, then I think we’re gonna have initial capabilities against cruise missiles, particularly for area defense where you get opportunities to take side shots as opposed to head-on,” he said.

“But as you go to the supersonic and the ballistic and the hypersonic … they’re getting faster and faster, but they’re also getting more maneuverable and more unpredictable. And so in addition to the fact that we need more capability on the weapon itself, that’s going to start putting a premium on the initial identification of those threats. And that’s sensors on the battlefield — whether it’s, you know, ships or for the Army bases. Do you know what’s coming towards you? Do you know when it’s going to come in? How are you going to layer your various defensive systems to take on that threat and other threats? So it will quickly become more than just about the weapon. It’ll become about the command-and-control integration and the weapon coordination and assignment that has to come along with that sort of fight,” he added.

Jon Harper

Written by Jon Harper

Jon Harper is Managing Editor of DefenseScoop, the Scoop News Group’s newest online publication focused on the Pentagon and its pursuit of new capabilities. He leads an award-winning team of journalists in providing breaking news and in-depth analysis on military technology and the ways in which it is shaping how the Defense Department operates and modernizes. You can also follow him on Twitter @Jon_Harper_

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