One of the smaller line items in the Missile Defense Agency’s $9.9 billion budget request for 2019 is also one of the most interesting: $66 million to keep developing a laser that can be mounted on a drone and used to destroy enemy missiles on the launch pad — or shortly after takeoff.
That amount includes $61 million to continue the laser-on-a-drone program, called the Low Power Laser Demonstrator, or LPLD, and $5 million to scale up its laser to sufficient destructive power.
Why does a low-power laser cost $61 million but scaling it up to sufficient power only cost $5 million? The answer lies in recent innovations in solid-state fiber lasers. Unlike highly volatile chemical lasers or less powerful solid-state bulk lasers, solid-state fiber lasers use the same sort of fiber-optic technology that forms the backbone of the information economy. Adding more power has become a matter of just adding more fiber.
Last fall, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics all received contracts for the program’s first phase; each will present its own solution to the Pentagon in the months ahead. The military will pick one winner to continue; the goal is to have something ready for testing by 2020.
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