Articles

The US wants a laser-equipped drone that would be a silver bullet for stopping North Korea

The US Missile Defense Agency just issued a bold request for proposals for a missile defense system that could change the game and act like a silver bullet against North Korean missile launches.


The MDA asked for proposals to build a high-altitude, long-endurance, unmanned aircraft capable of flying higher than 63,000 feet and carrying a laser to shoot down ballistic missiles as they arc upwards towards the sky.

While the laser system sounds like something out of science fiction, and is something the US Navy has struggled to field for over a decade, Ricky Ellison of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance told Business Insider that this drone could be the perfect application of the technology.

"What it can do is intercept missiles in the boost phase, therefore you don't need to have billion dollar radars all over the world to intercept with 80 million dollar interceptors," said Ellison.

Ballistic missiles fly high into earth's atmosphere before breaking apart, often releasing multiple reentry vehicles, countermeasures, and decoys. This makes them a nightmare for traditional missile defense systems which track the launch and then fire interceptor vehicles to smash them apart upon reentry.

Another possible design for the laser interceptor. Photo from missilethreat.csis.org

Even the top-of-the-line THAAD system, recently sent to South Korea, would struggle to destroy a large salvo from North Korea, and the price of installing and using the entire system, interceptors included, would cost into the billions. Additionally, THAAD's high-powered radar capability makes China extremely nervous, as they believe it could limit their ability to respond to a nuclear strike from the US.

Meanwhile, a solid state laser can be fired continuously for dollars a minute, about what you'd pay for electricity in your home. Though building the platform would cost millions in research, development, and testing.

Traditionally, while boost-phase interception looks more attractive on paper because it hits the missile in a more vulnerable stage, it's been impractical because the interceptor has to be close to the projectile.

So there's just no way the US could intercept a missile fired from central Russia or China in its boost phase. With a small country like North Korea though, US drones right off the border could melt down missiles with a light-speed weapon in the cloudless upper atmosphere.

"This would be far more efficient to have boost-phase intercept capability over that territory at that height to handle that," said Ellison. "As North Korea develops countermeasures, decoys, multiple reentry vehicles, and all the things that will continue to evolve, you have a great opportunity to eliminate all those advancing technologies before all that gets dispersed."

The MDA hopes to field this technology by 2023, at which point most experts agree North Korea will have perfected an intercontinental ballistic missile.

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