Deterring North Korea with Laser Drones

Missile Defense Agency receives concepts from U.S. companies

The U.S. options to counter a nuclear attack from North Korea don’t include a way to destroy a ballistic missile during the boost phase, when the missile’s engines are still burning brightly and the heat makes it easier to detect and track. In hopes of finding a solution, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency this month finished gathering ideas from industry for an unmanned aircraft that would fly at 60,000 feet for long periods and fire a laser to destroy a nuclear-armed missile shortly after launch.

MDA wants to gauge the U.S. industry’s ability to deliver this “high-altitude long-endurance” drone by around 2023, although the request for information released in June notes that the agency does not yet have funds for such a project.

Nine contractors submitted proposals before the Aug. 16 deadline, the agency said in an email. MDA did not identify them, but among the contractors that typically compete for missile defense work, Lockheed Martin confirmed sending a proposal.

If MDA were to go forward with one or more development contracts, the scope of the request suggests that engineers would face numerous challenges, including creating a drone that could make long flights while carrying a laser powerful enough to destroy a launching rocket. The agency asked for information about a drone that could carry at least 2,300 kilograms and up to 5,700 kg while flying at 63,000 feet. The aircraft would be based at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii and Edwards Air Force Base in California.

The U.S. has for years funded research on lasers, with at least one weapon now deployed by the Navy. A laser weapon deployed on the transport ship USS Ponce destroyed a drone and several moving targets based on boats during tests in 2014. Also, a laser weapon built by Lockheed Martin sank a small boat by melting a hole in it and destroyed a small rocket during tests in 2012.

Directed energy beams like that would need a strong, reliable power supply, and a laser carried by a drone would also have to focus at a fixed point on a moving target to melt through a ballistic missile’s hull, the agency’s request indicates. No specific type of engine or fuel is requested for the drone, but the posting asks for a power source that can supply the payload with at least 140 kilowatts and as much as 280 kilowatts for greater than 30 minutes while in the colder air of high altitudes. The post also warns the drone should not vibrate the payload during high altitude flights.

MDA said this request for information was in planning for several years under its technology strategy of deploying lasers for missile defense. In 2010, the Boeing-built YAL-1 Airborne Laser, installed in a turret on the nose of a modified Boeing 747, destroyed a rocket during boost phase. The Defense Department canceled the program in 2011 out of concern that it would not be effective enough to justify the expense.

Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says the airborne laser tests made advancements that are key for the new missile defense drone the military wants to build. Despite these advances, Karako says, “it’s important to keep our expectations in check” about the potential to shoot missiles with lasers.

“We have been five years away from lasers for the past 30 years,” he cautions. “For the immediate future we are going to see chemically powered rockets kill other chemically powered rockets.”

MDA faces renewed pressure to beef up missile defense options following North Korea’s threats of launching its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles at Guam, where Andersen Air Force Base is.

At least for now, protecting Guam probably would come down to the terminal phase, when a warhead would be falling toward Earth. These shots would be taken by the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles in Guam. U.S. Aegis ships and Japanese Kongo-class destroyers in the Pacific could attempt to intercept a nuclear warhead in the midcourse phase with a Standard Missile-3. The Standard Missile-6 also deployed on Aegis ships would target ballistic missiles during their terminal phases. The U.S. also has Ground Based Midcourse Defense missiles in California and Alaska, but these are meant to protect the continental U.S. rather than prevent strikes against far-off places like Guam.

Destroying missiles during boost phase remains an elusive but preferred defensive option, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense researcher at the RAND Corp. think tank based in Santa Monica, California. The only other alternative, destroying North Korea’s missiles while they are still on the ground, could cause the Kim regime to retaliate, Bennett explained during a conference call with reporters.

The Pentagon is conducting a Ballistic Missile Defense Review and expects to deliver the final report on how to strengthen those defenses to President Donald Trump by the end of 2017.


“We have been five years away from lasers for the past 30 years.”

Thomas Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies
A modified Boeing 747-400F with a YAL-1A Airborne Laser mounted on its nose takes off for a test flight in 2007. The Defense Department canceled the program in 2011. Credit: U.S. Air Force

Deterring North Korea with Laser Drones