By Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military has made strides in developing lasers, microwaves and other directed energy weapons, and could soon use them more widely, top armed forces officials and U.S. lawmakers told an industry conference on Tuesday.
The officials described weapons that are in various stages of development and testing by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army, but said more work was needed to scale up the technology for larger weapons, develop tactics for their use, and ensure sufficient funding.
"Directed energy brings the dawn of an entirely new era in defense," Lieutenant General William Etter, Commander, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, told a conference hosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.
Directed energy refers to weapons that emit focused energy in the form of lasers, microwaves, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves, sound or particle beams. Lasers are already widely use to guide bombs to their target, but the next step would be to use the lasers as weapons themselves.
The military has been working on such weapons for decades, but says many technology challenges have finally been addressed.
Etter and other officials said such weapons could lower the cost of current weapons, speed up responses to enemy attacks and cut deaths of civilians in the battlefield.
Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the top U.S. arms buyer, said Pentagon funding for directed energy programs would remain steady at about $300 million a year for now, with larger-scale demonstrations to start in about five years.
Kendall said directed energy offered a less expensive way to counter ballistic and cruise missile threats than the expensive interceptors used now, and urged industry to focus development efforts on those threats.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told the conference the Navy was encouraged by testing of a laser deployed on the USS Ponce in the Gulf, which can destroy small boats and unmanned aerial vehicles, and can also be used as a telescope.
Mabus said the Navy was extending deployment of the laser on the Ponce, and using lessons learned to help produce a 100-150 kilowatt laser prototype for testing at sea in 2018 or sooner.
He said a powerful new railgun that could hit targets 100 miles away would also be tested at sea next year. A railgun is an electrically powered electromagnetic projectile launcher.
He said the Navy would release a comprehensive road map for these sort of weapons this fall and could initiate a full-scale acquisition program in fiscal 2018.
Mabus said Iran and other countries were already using lasers to target ships and commercial airliners, and the U.S. military needed to accelerate often cumbersome acquisition processes to ensure that it stayed ahead of potential foes.
Major General Jerry Harris, vice commander of Air Combat Command, said the Air Force had developed a high-power microwave weapon that could disperse crowds without killing people by rapidly raising body temperature, and the system could be put to use immediately on drones or other aircraft.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Bill Rigby)