The U.S. military invests more money than any other country to maintain technological superiority, but its expensive high-tech defenses are increasingly countered by the proliferation of relatively cheap but effective weapons like cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft.
Without a more efficient and cost-effective method of knocking enemy munitions from the sky, the United States risks losing future conflicts with peer competitors that wield capable yet inexpensive munitions, experts agreed.
A new set of weapons straight out of Star Wars that cost dollars or pennies to fire could flip the price-per-shot equation in favor of the United States. When facing enemies with ballistic missiles and integrated air defense systems, the most economical way to counter incoming barrages could be blasting them out of the sky with concentrated beams of directed energy, said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
"As we look to the future toward potentially more contested operational environments where our enemies have precision defenses ... that can drive us to need to use more [precision-guided munitions]," Gunzinger, said at a recent forum on directed energy weapons hosted by the George C. Marshall Institute.
"Let's face it, we're upside down in this cost-imposition calculus," he added. Fielding directed energy weapons "would help reverse the trend we see today ... where the Navy has to spend more and more and more to defend the fleet at the expense of its offensive punch."
Despite its promise for cheap, high-rate shipboard missile defense, spending on solid-state laser research-and-development has remained relatively flat since fiscal year 2011 when it was at a high of about $400 million. The overall budget for laser programs has since fallen to $350 million.
Lasers and other directed energy weapons can reverse the trend in favor of the United States because they cost next to nothing to fire and have almost limitless magazines, said Ronald O'Rourke, specialist in naval affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
The Navy fires expensive munitions at targets--be they incoming missiles, small attack craft or shore defenses--that cost the enemy comparatively little if destroyed, O'Rourke said during the Marshall Institute panel.
"That is not an affordable game. If you were to continue it with large numbers of engagements, you would quickly find that you are on the wrong side of that equation economically."