Moonshot: Laser missile defense
Light-speed interceptors could counter hypersonic attacks
In the same spirit that drove the engineers of the Apollo 11 mission to accomplish what had seemed impossible, Raytheon's innovators are working on world-changing technologies that push the limits of what people can do. Here, as part of the series we call "The Next Moonshots," we explore the idea of using laser weapons to defeat missiles – specifically those that travel many times the speed of sound.
WHAT IT WILL BE
A laser weapon that can stop a missile attack.
WHY WE NEED IT
Demand is high for new ways to defend against ultra-fast missiles. China and Russia, for example, have both claimed significant progress in developing hypersonic missiles, or those that fly at Mach 5 or faster. Laser weapons move even faster than that – literally at the speed of light.
WHY IT'S A MOONSHOT
Today's laser weapons can already defeat drones, but cranking out enough photons to fry a ballistic missile would take far more power. Once engineers find a clean, practical and efficient way to produce all that power, they'll also need to focus it into an ultra-precise beam. That, in turn, takes bigger optical mirrors with coatings that withstand such a massive amount of energy. And, of course, they'll need a vehicle that can carry it all.
Lastly, there's the "line-of-sight" problem; lasers shoot perfectly straight, meaning a laser shot toward the horizon will eventually hit the Earth's curves. That's a problem when you're trying to hit a missile on the other side of the world.
When it comes to ballistic missile defense, "you want to get it into airborne platforms and into space," said Evan Hunt, a former U.S. Air Force navigator who now works in business development for Raytheon's high-energy laser products. "It's better to look down than to shoot up."
WHAT IT TAKES
To pull it off, engineers will have to scale up the parts of laser weapons that are working today and steal from other advances in technology. Commercial markets are making leaps in power storage, Hunt said, and the military is already driving innovation in electro-optical and infrared sensors.
"All the other key subsystems in the laser weapon are being spurred by existing markets," Hunt said, "(but) there needs to be some out-of-the-box thinking to get where MDA, the Air Force and Space Force need to go."
HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD
Laser missile interceptors could deter the development of nuclear weapons.
"Imagine you're a country that has to invest in a nuclear weapon," Hunt said, "and then all of a sudden the U.S. comes out with an ability to shoot your nuclear weapon down at cents per shot. I think you could really hurt people's incentive to go that route."