August 2, 2004 | Backgrounder on National Security and Defense
America's critical infrastructure--e.g., power plants, transportation hubs, and telecommunications facilities--is becoming increasingly vulnerable to precision missile attacks. Guided missile technology and the missiles themselves have been available for years, but the emergence of global terror networks, sophisticated smuggling techniques, and the post-September 11 security environment have made the threat of precision missile attacks even more serious. While technology transfer legislation and international agree-ments may help to control the spread of some technologies, relying solely on these mechanisms is wholly insufficient, especially when proliferation has already occurred. Therefore, it is essential that the United States actively defend its most vital nodes of critical infrastructure. 1 To be effective against close-range missile attacks, such defenses must be cost efficient, safe, and swift.
Although the United States is not currently prepared to protect domestic targets against these threats, it does have the technology to do so with directed-energy weapons (DEWs), which include lasers, microwaves, electromagnetic pulses, and high intensity radio frequency waves. In 2000, for example, the Army used the Tactical High Energy Laser to shoot down a rocket carrying a live warhead--the first time a laser has destroyed a missile in flight.
Although rarely considered in homeland security assessments, precision attacks using missiles--traditionally thought of as conventional weapons--pose a threat to principal U.S. infrastructure. Precision missiles can engage targets at extended ranges, from one hundred yards to thousands of miles. Whereas the military already employs certain measures to thwart such stealthy attacks abroad and defend key military installations, other more diverse and soft nodes of U.S. critical infrastructure are less well-defended and often not defended at all. With an ever-increasing potential for terrorists to procure missile technologies and weapons, precision missile strikes could represent an enduring threat from both terrorists and rogue states. There are numerous precision systems around the world that could threaten America's critical infrastructure.
Directed-energy weapons have singular characteristics that make them uniquely appropriate to addressing the short-range missile threat, and they would prove immensely valuable employed as part of critical infrastructure defense. They could protect high-risk structures, such as major government buildings, major transportation nodes, vital commercial assets, power plants, and airports. Although other options may exist that could protect critical infrastructure (e.g., surface-to-air missile batteries, fighter aircraft surveillance, and arms control legislation), in the long run none are as cost effective, precise, safe, or swift as a directed-energy defense system.
What Are Directed-Energy Weapons? Direct-ed-energy weapons include a host of technologies, including lasers and microwave radiation emitters. These weapons can inflict casualties and damage equipment by depositing energy on their intended target. Compared with conventional weapons, which rely on the kinetic or chemical energy of a projectile, DEWs hit a target with subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves that travel at speeds at or near the speed of light. DEWs generate very high power beams and typically use a single optical system to both track a target and to focus the beam on the target in order to destroy it.4
Lasers--the most mature form of directed-energy weapon that can counter airborne threats--form intense beams of light that can be precisely aimed across many kilometers to disable a wide range of targets: from satellites to missiles and aircraft to ground vehicles.5 Additionally, the laser beam can be redirected by mirrors to hit targets not visible from the source--all without compromising much of the beam's initial power.
In 1996, the U.S. Army and the Israeli Ministry of Defense began to develop a short-range tactical high energy laser (THEL), which has since become the most successful laser-based anti-missile program in history. It is the most advanced directed-energy technology that the American armed forces have available to protect critical infrastructure. Demonstrating the unique threat flexibility of laser weapons, THEL has intercepted dozens of threats and a growing list of different threat types, including a large number of Russian Katyusha rockets, five artillery shells, and, more recently, large caliber rockets. The Army is preparing to build a mobile prototype (Mobile THEL or MTHEL), which will add mobility and high operational readiness. MTHEL could protect against the kind of rocket and mortar threats that U.S. troops have been facing in Iraq and Afghanistan. HORNET (a slightly different, upgraded MTHEL configuration) could also protect an airport against a full range of MANPADs and other precision strike threats.
Protecting Critical Infrastructure. Future directed-energy weapons may offer the greatest improvements to U.S. defenses. For example, within a decade, American military developments in MTHEL could produce prototype weapons capable of providing area-wide point defenses against artillery, rockets, mortars, missiles, and low-flying unmanned aerial vehicles. Ground-based lasers are being designed not only for battlefield uses, but also to protect Israeli population centers from terrorist attacks with Katyusha rockets and other improvised rocket, artillery, and mortar systems.6
Such systems could be employed in the U.S. as well. These weapons could be deployed at airports to defend planes from attacks by shoulder-fired missiles (and by makeshift rockets and missiles) during takeoff and landing--the times when aircraft are most vulnerable. With most airports located in or near major urban centers, DEWs could help to address the near impossibility of providing adequate, credible security zones around airports. Furthermore, DEWs could defend coastal airports from attacks launched from a commercial or private ship loitering offshore--a potentially ideal platform for launching precision strikes.
Unique Advantages of Directed-Energy Weapons. During the past two decades, directed-energy projects have advanced considerably in areas such as power, beam-control, and pointing and tracking techniques. This progress accounts for the U.S. government's growing interest in directed-energy technology. The unique features and advantages of DEWs may arguably revolutionize concepts of military operations, as well as greatly influence civilian protection.
Countries with sophisticated technology, such as the United States and India, should enter into a serious dialogue to determine what a future homeland security technology development regime might look like. Among other things, such a dialogue would require: (1) a technology clearinghouse so that the partners know which technologies are available for transfer; (2) a method of setting standards so that technologies are understandable; (3) interoperable and transferable means for industry-to-industry dialogue; (4) predictable export-control requirements; and (5) acquisition mechanisms, such as joint development programs, licensing agreements, and something comparable to the Foreign Military Sales program.
Although directed-energy weapons have been on the horizon for many years, never has their potential been so essential to homeland security. The United States needs to put the resources behind this promising technology now so that it can better protect its critical infrastructure in the near future.
Jack Spencer is Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security and James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
1. As defined by Congress, critical infrastructure means "systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of those matters." USA PATRIOT Act of 2001, 42 U.S.C. § 5195c(e).
2. For further reference on the threat of MANPAD, see James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., and Jack Spencer, "Facts About the Shoulder-Fired Missile Threat," Heritage Foundation Web Memo No. 328, August 14, 2003, at www.heritage.org/Research/ HomelandDefense/wm328.cfm.
4. Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., "The Emerging Promise (and Danger) of Directed-Energy Weapons," Lexington Institute Capitol Hill Forum on Directed Energy, July 11, 2002, at www.lexingtoninstitute.org/defense/energyforum_thompson.htm (July 23, 2004).
6. Josef Schwartz, et al., "Tactical High Energy Laser," presented at the SPIE Proceedings on Laser and Beam Control Technologies, January 21, 2002, pp. 1-6. TRW developed a fixed-site THEL under an $89 million contact. In tests, the system has successfully shot down 25 rockets. It is, however, not currently capable of being deployed for operational use. The U.S. Army is developing a mobile version and has requested additional funding for the program. In February 2004, the Army's tactical laser project was formally transitioned into an acquisition program. The first prototype of the mobile laser is due to appear in 2008. See Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D., and Daniel Gouré Ph.D., "Directed Energy Weapons: Technologies, Applications, and Implications," Lexington Institute White Paper, February 2003, pp. 11-12 and 24-25, at www.lexingtoninstitute. org/defense/DirectEngery.pdf (July 23, 2004).