Laser Boondoggle?

WaPo: Pentagon Laser Project Exceeds Cost Estimates, GAO Says

A Pentagon attempt to develop an airborne laser to blast enemy missiles out of the sky has already cost more than twice original estimates and faces continued technical hurdles, according to a congressional audit of the struggling program.

The laser project, begun eight years ago, has become a key element in the Bush administration’s drive to erect a network of defenses against ballistic missile attack.

The lead part of that network — a system of land-based missile interceptors — is scheduled to go on alert in Alaska later this year. It will aim at knocking down enemy warheads in space. The airborne laser is meant to complement that system by going after enemy missiles soon after launch in their “boost phase.”

But the audit by the General Accounting Office cites a history of technical troubles and schedule delays that have plagued the program. The GAO report, to be released today, also calls into question the ultimate usefulness of the planned system.

The $2 billion spent on the program from inception in 1996 to 2003 is double the initial estimate, the report says, adding that more cost overruns are likely. The Pentagon plans to spend an additional $3.1 billion from fiscal 2004 through 2009.

“The cost growth occurred primarily because the program did not adequately plan for — and could not fully anticipate — the complexities involved in developing the system,” the report says.

The weapon consists of a high-energy chemical laser mounted in a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. By focusing on a rising enemy missile, the laser is supposed to rupture the missile’s casing and cause it to lose power or flight control.

Originally envisioned to defeat short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, the system’s role has been expanded by the Bush administration to include targeting intercontinental missiles. Pentagon officials have heralded it as a revolutionary technology promising a major leap ahead in U.S. missile defense. But the GAO report warns that predictions of usefulness are based so far only on computerized models and simulations, not “on any demonstrated capability of the system.”

Whether this project is technically feasible is light years beyond my scientific knowledge. It is, however, rather clear that developing defense against high tech weaponry shouldn’t be at the top of our military priority list at the moment. I’d far rather see this program cut down into pure research, or shelved altogether, until we’ve got such things as adequate body armor, armored HMMWV’s, and other basic equipment to all our soldiers deployed in a combat zone. Plus, we could certainly use a couple billion dollars in reshaping our force to more adequately handle the peace and stability operations missions that have become their modal mission over the past dozen or so years–including an expansion of our MP and civil affairs capability on active duty to reduce our overreliance on the Reserves.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. charlie32 says:

    The same or similar complaints were raised about all our current systems back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The Abrams Tank, Patriot missile, Apache helicopter, Aegis system, etc, were all “too expensive” encountered “troubles in development”, “were not what we need”. And then they finished develpment and fielded them and we fought the first Gulf War with them. They work as designed and are considered reasonably successful.
    The only chink in the armor in ’91 was the Patriot’s limited ABM capability; good as it was, and it was all we had, it wasn’t completely effective. The laser system will answer that problem, and others as well I’d expect.


  2. McGehee says:

    It’s also worth noting that cutting back development of new weapons systems in wartime is both shortsighted and historically “just not done.”

  3. James Joyner says:

    But that’s because we usually are developing weapons systems that will be of use in that war. I don’t think even the most ardent fans of missile defense think that’s going to be the case here. In the meantime, we have actual needs going unmet.

  4. McGehee says:

    So you’re certain some terrorist-supporting states — such as, oh, say North Korea — won’t be lobbing missiles at our mainland as we prosecute the war on terror?

    I’m not.