Lockheed Martin’s concept art shows the potential of directed energy weapons against unmanned systems. (Lockheed Martin)
On June 8, 2021, the U.S. Army took the unusual step of asking Congress to allow it to slow down the purchase and deployment of Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) Increment 2, which is designed to protect U.S. bases from Cruise missiles and other threats. Congress previously mandated that the Army should have two IFPC Increment 2 companies by fiscal year 2023, in addition to the two Iron Dome companies procured as IFPC Increment 1.
In the Army’s view, the 2023 timeline will force an interim solution instead of dedicating limited resources to a more permanent capability that can be connected to the military’s network and radar, which Iron Dome has failed to do .
However, the decision to focus on “lasting solutions” also calls for the repeal of a US Congressional requirement that the Army “consider a range of directed energy weapon systems” before deploying IFPC Increment 2 in FY23.
The IFPC Increment 2 de-prioritization of directed energy weapons comes at a critical and promising time for the development of this technology and capability area. Every opportunity should be seized to ensure sound investments in directed energy as a key component of a layered effort to counter the cruise missile threat and the expanding air and cruise missile threat to U.S. bases.
As Russian and Chinese capabilities have grown and the value of cruise missiles has been proven in combat, awareness of the scale and nature of the cruise missile threat to U.S. bases has grown. Cruise missiles are now widely proliferating as both state and non-state actors recognize that they offer a low-cost, low-flying capability that is difficult to detect and defeat.
But the threat to U.S. bases is not limited to cruise missiles. Among other emerging and problematic air and missile defense threats, there is growing global interest and development in concepts and technologies for loitering munitions and UAV swarms.
Traditionally, cruise ammunition has been manufactured and sold by only a few countries. The list of those capable of making such weapons has grown over the last year, meaning that even if many of the new suppliers are allies or partners, these weapons will be made available to a growing number of players. In fact, they already are.
At the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi in February 2021, ADASI, a subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates defense industry conglomerate Edge Group, showcased four cruise munitions from the QX series, including micro, mini, fixed wing and quadcopter aircraft system. Others such as Paramount South Africa and Armenian Pride Systems demonstrated new loitering munitions.
Swarms of drones—smart or otherwise—also pose a new threat to base defense that is no longer just in name. In addition to the demonstration of autonomous drone swarms in the US, Russia, China, India and the UK, the successful September 2019 attack on Saudi Arabian oil fields included less advanced large-scale drones, while Russia’s Khmeimi in Syria Mu Air Force Base has been the target of several strikes by swarms of simple and improved drones.
The end result: More players are — or will soon — command more and better low-cost, low-flying capabilities that threaten U.S. bases. And these capabilities are likely to be used in conjunction with each other—as they did against Saudi oil fields—to imbue base air and missile defenses with mass, not to mention autonomy for speed and agility. These proliferating capabilities also exacerbate the unsustainable and asymmetric cost curve associated with using relatively expensive interceptors to counter relatively inexpensive threats.
Addressing this challenge at US bases requires a layered approach, of course, with kinetic interceptors and hypervelocity projectiles that reduce the cost of fire per effect.
However, it also needs to take advantage of the opportunity to capitalize on the growing momentum of directed energy weapons and their promise in addressing the full suite of air and missile defense challenges. Specifically, the low-cost single-shot, deep-magazine capabilities of directed energy weapons, combined with other kinetic energy solutions, could provide an affordable way to deal with a variety of incoming low-cost threats, while high-power microwaves are used in particular Yes, it is possible to engage swarms of unmanned systems and munitions simultaneously.
The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force are all developing directed energy weapons, and in the case of tactical high-power combat responders, the Army and Air Force are collaborating on directed energy weapons. But much of these efforts are focused on supporting only counter-drone missions that require less power and typically involve shorter ranges.
Using directed energy to intercept cruise missiles will require expanding the power these weapons generate, while also dealing with sensitive issues of size and weight. There has been progress and potential here as the Department of Defense moves forward with plans to develop a 300-kilowatt laser by 2022.
Building on these types of efforts is critical if the Army and Department of Defense more broadly hope to create truly sustainable and enduring solutions to the complex, diverse, and dynamic air and missile defense challenges facing U.S. bases.
Tate Nurkin is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.
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