One of the holy grails of Missile Defense is developing the ability to destroy a nuclear-tipped ICBM during its Boost Phase. The United States currently has the ability to engage missiles in the midcourse and terminal phases, but not during the first few minutes when the ICBM is lifting off from its silo. During the Reagan-era SDI program, boost phase defense was envisioned to be deployed on satellites that would pass over an enemy’s silos. Modern concepts of boost phase missile defense, now being dusted off thanks to the threats coming from North Korea and Iran, envision lasers deployed on high altitude aerial drones.

How the system would work

The Missile Defense Agency has just received ideas from contractors for a laser equipped aerial drone that could loiter about at 63,000 feet.

The laser would have a power source capable of putting out 140 to 280 kilowatts over a 30 minute period. The laser should weigh between 2,300 to 5,700 kilograms. The laser weapon cannot vibrate during its operation.

Military has been developing laser weapons for decades

While the Reagan-era SDI program worked on a variety of beam weapons, military weapons have only come into their own in the current century. The Air Force successfully tested an airborne laser fired from a modified 747 before the program was canceled by President Obama in 2011. The Navy is currently testing a laser weapon on the USS Ponce that should be able to kill drones, speed boats, and other low flying aircraft and missiles. The laser weapon is envisioned as providing defense for ships in the next few years.

When will the drone mounted laser be deployed?

The MDA envisions the drone mounted laser becoming operational by around 2023.

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That schedule not only depends on funding, which would be decided toward the end of 2017 by President Trump and the following year by Congress but the pace of technology development. One of the limiting factors for laser weapons has been the development of a power source that is light weight enough to be carried on an aircraft or satellite and powerful enough to kill a missile as it rises from a silo. So far that capability has proven to be elusive. The joke is that beam weapons have been five years away for the past 30 years.

Until the problems of powering a laser weapon are solved, the task of killing a missile in flight is going to be accomplished by other missiles, such as the THAAD system and the Navy’s Aegis ships. However, when lasers are deployed, the Reagan-era dream of a layered missile defense will have been achieved.