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Mark Gunzinger thinks directed energy-based weapons are having a moment.
The weapons — which use focused energy in the forms of lasers, microwaves and other methods against targets ranging from drone swarms to ballistic missiles — have long drawn the interest of the Department of Defense and its military services but have previously been relegated largely to the arena of the theoretical.
That’s about to change, said Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Forces Transformation and Resources, on a Tuesday conference call detailing Booz Allen Hamilton’s (NYSE: BAH) Directed Energy Summit.
“It’s shifted from basic education and improving awareness of where these technologies were a year or two ago, to now to begin to transition the technology to actual capabilities that can be used by U.S. warfighters,” he said. “Frankly, it really is time to get on with it.”
Gunzinger said stakeholders attending the summit — which is now in its fifth year — used to prognosticate that directed energy technology would be deployed to the field in the next “five to 10 years,” but thanks to increased federal spending, that number may be down to two or three years.
“We are right on the cusp of fielding developmental systems that can quickly transition to operational capabilities,” he said.
He noted that federal spending on the research and development of the weapons systems has risen from $575 million in the President’s fiscal 2017 budget to $1.1 billion two years later, and $840 million in last week’s budget request.
The Department of Defense plans to spend up to $235 million on directed energy capabilities alone in fiscal 2020, with interest in developing systems for air, missile and military base defense, as well as other applications.
Gunzinger said the Army is working on mobile laser systems, including its High Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator — a 100-kilowatt vehicle-mounted system being developed by Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) and Dynetics.
The Navy, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to spend $299 million on laser-based defense systems in fiscal 2020, including on testing of its 150-kilowatt laser weapon demonstrator system and a destroyer-based system that Lockheed plans to deliver that fiscal year.
“I think it’s safe to say that just about all of the force providers in DoD have directed energy science & technology programs that are very close to transitioning to actual demonstrators and then operational weapons systems,” he said. “That indicates the level of interest that DoD has in harnessing the power of directed energy, non-kinetic capabilities to help counter threats to American forces and our installations overseas.”
So when exactly will we see these systems in the field? That depends on a number of factors — the military service, the weapons system and its delivery method — but Gunzinger said that if funding trends continue, operational systems may not be far off.
“I think we are beginning to see this transition occur,” he said. “With more funding being allocated to actual developmental systems that will be tested in [fiscal] 2019, 2020 and 2021 that could transition to programs to acquire them in 2022, 2023 and onward.”