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Directed energy weapons, which include high-energy lasers and high-powered microwave systems, offer a compelling response to emerging national security threats. There are notable directed energy programs currently under development and being tested by the several branches of the military. In order to sustain the systematic roll-out of directed energy weapons once these systems are approved, the Department of Defense (DoD) needs to ensure the industrial base and the component suppliers of these laser and microwave systems will be ready when the demand materializes.
Leaders from a few of the companies at the forefront of today’s directed energy efforts, give their insight into the current health of the industrial base.
By looking at the active programs in play by each branch of the military, and the current political environment, industry can see DoD’s commitment to directed energy technology. However, Chuck Mattera, president and CEO of II-VI Incorporated, a supplier of engineered materials, electro-optical products and assemblies and laser products and technologies, said that industry will, “remain cautious with their expectations until they see a program progress from R&D into a production environment.”
Industrial demand is expected to continue a pattern of slow growth, “thus a surge in requirements for [military] directed energy will require added industrial capacity, capacity that will take years, not months, to put in place,” noted Gary DeBell, founder of MLD Technologies. As new requirements are introduced, suppliers would benefit from visibility into the government’s projected demand for components.
Today’s directed energy supply chain is “relatively healthy in the context of supporting the various development activities that are currently ongoing. The strength of the industrial base supporting directed energy relies on robust commercial activity and the willingness of suppliers to not only divert some capacity from commercial components where it is available, but to build substantial new capacity unique to directed energy requirements when the time comes,” according to DeBell.
Commercial clients don’t require a dedicated U.S. manufacturing base—which is a critical component to the readiness of the industrial base since it “will be necessary to support investments in U.S.-based technologies critical for current and future DoD directed energy requirements,” noted Mattera.
According to Mark McElhinney, president of Lasertel, a strong return on investment and business case will be needed for DoD directed energy programs to compete against commercial profitability since, for many small to medium sized companies in the directed energy supply chain, their core business is in other markets. “These enterprises are generally healthy, but are approaching the directed energy market cautiously because the opportunity is difficult to forecast,” stated McElhinney.
Today’s supply chain is made up of thousands of companies of varying size, capability, and experience level. Scott Keeney, founder and CEO at nLight, points to the need for the DoD to “assess and invest in developing the U.S. directed energy supply chain, particularly for lasers and laser components.”
Keeney points to specific technologies as critical components, including directed energy lasers, beam directors, beam control, and low size weight and power semiconductor laser technologies.
The supply chain is more than components though, and another critical element that will be needed in the event of a rapid ramp up in capability is skilled personnel, according to DeBell. “It typically takes 2 to 5 years to train both skilled direct labor and/or engineering personnel to support the manufacture of high performance optical components.”
DeBell also suggests that the government fund a strategic material reserve for long lead time materials, and sustainment funding to support expedited scale up for directed energy components. Further, that the government provide near term financial assistance for the specialized equipment needed to support the exponential growth of the directed energy supply chain. Another option the DoD might consider, according to Mattera, is to “require the tier 1 laser weapons primes to create a partnership agreement to encourage tier 2 and 3 investment and commitment.”
“Critical directed energy technologies should not, where possible, rely on international suppliers,” said McElhinney. To reduce the risk of international security threats, domestic technology development should be based on, according to McElhinney, “visible funding streams and technical requirements” provided by the U.S. government.
As with almost all technological advancements today, there is concern for the security of the directed energy supply chain against interference from U.S. adversaries. McElhinney points out that, “companies operating in the directed energy market will almost certainly have other business streams… [that] do not necessarily present the same security challenges. Given the sheer complexity within the supply chain that external interference is probable, not just possible.”
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These videos offer the latest discussion in Directed Energy policy, from the 2018 Directed Energy Summit. Featuring Dr. Mike Griffin, Elbridge A. Colby, Dr. Nadia Schadlow, and Jeffrey S. White. Read More