Well, in May 2020, Mike Griffin, Undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering, had this to say,
“I’m extremely skeptical that we can put a large laser on an aircraft and use it to shoot down an adversary missile, even from fairly close.” (1)
Why was Mr. Griffin skeptical? Here’s what he had to say,
“It has been done as an experiment, but as a weapon system — to equip an airplane with the kinds of lasers we think necessary, in terms of their power level, and all their support requirements, and get the airplane to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately — that combination of things doesn’t go on one platform.” (1)
Now, we learn that the Air Force is pushing a planned test of an airborne laser on a fighter back to at least 2023.
The U.S. Air Force’s long-planned test of an airborne laser weapon aboard a fighter jet has been delayed until 2023 due to technical challenges and complications spurred by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, its program head [Jeff Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory] said.
… Air Force acquisition czar Will Roper acknowledged that the service is rethinking how it could best use directed-energy technologies. Perhaps the most optimal use for SHiELD wasn’t onboard a fighter, he said.
While I am not a laser expert, by any means, it is clear that the challenges involved in mounting a laser on an airplane are far more challenging than anyone cares to admit. It is also clear that a practical, fighter-mounted laser is not in the foreseeable future.
Now, let’s delve into a bit of nearly unfounded speculation – isn’t that always the best kind?!
If airborne lasers have zero hope of successful missile defense, what does that suggest for the prospect of using lasers for missile defense on board ships? To me, reading the blurry, out of focus tea leaves, I see no hope of an effective missile defense for shipboard lasers in the next, say, twenty years. The combination of extremely fast and maneuverable missiles plus the pitching and rolling of the firing platform (the ship) suggests that maintaining a precise, fixed ‘burn’ point for a sufficiently long time to produce a catastrophic effect on an incoming missile will not be possible.
Now, toss in other mitigating factors like turbulence, humidity, weather, clouds, temperature, and whatever else (remember, I’m not a laser guy!) and the chance of producing a catastrophic effect is even further reduced.
Finally, what happens when the first successful anti-ship missile laser actually works? You’ve got it, of course … the enemy will begin to incorporate anti-laser measures into their missiles. One can easily imagine incorporating thicker ‘noses’ to increase burn time, inducing a continuous rolling action by the missile (Rolling Airframe Missile, anyone?), making the missile body more reflective, and many more measures that I, a barely informed amateur in the field, can’t even begin to imagine. This will set practical laser development back another decade or two.
Of course, for less demanding applications like destroying a low, slow drone, lasers could prove practical and effective in the moderately near future. Therefore, continued development effort is certainly warranted but to believe high end combat lasers are just around the corner is to believe in fairy tales.
The short of it is that lasers are, and will always remain, just a few years from practical application for many more decades to come.
(1)Defense News website, “Griffin ‘extremely skeptical’ of airborne lasers for missile defense”, Aaron Mehta, May-2020,https://www.defensenews.com/2020/05/20/griffin-extremely-skeptical-of-airborne-lasers-for-missile-defense/