The Scaled/LNLL Defender UAV is a simple yet efficient design.


LLNL's involvement with anti-missile technology goes back to
the 'Brilliant Pebbles' program of the 1980s.


Type: high-altitude laser-capable interceptor UAV



Powerplant: unknown

Significant date: circa 2005

In 1998-99, Boeing's Phantom Works conducted the Directed Energy Applications for Tactical Airborne Combat (DE-ATAC) study, sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to review possible uses of directed-energy on tactical airborne platforms in combat. This effort identified and prioritized high payoff airborne tactical applications of directed-energy technologies including high power microwave (HPM), HEL, and kinetic energy weapons (KEW). Based on these priorities, the study formulated Air Force investment strategies in key areas of directed-energy technologies. The Phase I DE-ATAC study recommended further study for five tactical DE concepts, four dealing with HPM and a fifth addressing advanced active sensors using lasers. One of the concepts identified under the DE-ATAC Phase I study was integrating HELs on fighters for tactical operations. Due to weather concerns about its full utility, this DE concept did not go forward as part of the Phase II DE-ATAC study.

The logical next step, as suggested by the study, was to examine the utility of placing a high-energy laser on an airborne tactical platform, fighter, and uninhabited combat air vehicle (UCAV). Obviously, such an effort had to provide a clear, logical, coherent picture of how weather and environmental atmospheric conditions affect use of HELs for tactical missions. The question became how much can an airborne tactical laser expect to be employed in "weather." Consequently, this study attempted to answer the meaning of "all-weather capability" as defined by today's standards and to evaluate environmental impacts on a variety of tactical HEL missions. The study results are very encouraging. Results show that the presence of clouds and operation of a HEL fighter need not be mutually exclusive events. This study addressed what weather really means to the use of HELs for tactical fighter missions. The results clearly show, as in other U.S. Air Force tactical operations, weather is not a unique deterrent.

This Tactical High Energy Laser Fighter Study was a combined effort of aircraft industry, AFRL, and MAJCOMS (ACC/AFSOC). Five major topics were emphasized:

  • Missions identification—application use of HELs on tactical platforms.
  • Impact of weather—environmental conditions on use of HELs in tactical operations.
  • Enabling technologies critical for development and integration of HEL-Beam Control Systems (BCS) on aircraft.
  • Potential demonstrations for implementing and integrating HELs on fighter platforms progressing from ISR at 1 KW to 10s-100 KW for potential lethal and non-lethal missions.
  • Roadmaps for critical technologies, including demonstrations
    promoting TRL 6.

The study results concluded that the potential is good for both near and far-term applications of HELs on tactical platforms including its future with UAV and UCAVs. Present “state-of-art” beam control systems coupled to HELs indicates good laser pointing stability should be exhibited by compensating for the aircraft mechanical vibrations and induced turbulence within the free stream region around the tactical air platform.

Following the Phantom Works study, Lawrence Livermore National Labs—which has been a key player in anti-ballistic missile research for more than 20 years, ever since the SDI effort (see insert left)—is now working on yet another anti-missile project called Defender. It is a high altitude (>20 km) UAV with a semiconductor diode-pumped, Solid State Heat-Capacity Laser (DP-SSHCL) weapon for boost phase destruction of tactical ballistic missiles. The vehicle has a lethal kill radius of up to 200 km and is developed with the help of Scaled Composites. The remarkable miniaturization and increasing efficiency going on with SSHCL research over at Livermore might be a reasonable predictor of UAV's compactness; after scaling diode arrays and garnet crystals down so they could be carried in a Humvee vehicle (see below), LLNL and Scaled may well have developed a system small enough to be flown inside a mini-UAV.

The inception of the DP-SSHCL goes back to a Laser Science and Technology (LS&T) Program sponsored by the U.S. Army's Space Missile Defense Command (SMDC). A division of Lawrence Livermore National Labs called Photon Science & Application (PS&A) developed a high-average-power (100-kW class), diode-pumped, Solid State Heat-Capacity Laser (DP-SSHCL) suitable for use as a military weapon, in collaboration with industrial team partners including Decade Optical Systems (DOS), General Atomics (GA), PEI Electronics and Northrop Grumman Polyscientific. Since its inception, the SSHCL was designed with two major objectives in mind: provide enough power to be useful for military applications and be compact enough so that it can fit on a mobile platform. Consequently, a mobile, compact, lightweight laser system capable of being deployed on a hybrid-electric vehicle was developed. Targets would include short-range rockets, guided missiles, artillery and motor fire, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

In 2004, SSHCL achieved a world record output power (for a solid-state diode-pumped laser) of 31.3 kW. This milestone came approximately one year after the SSHCL commenced initial operation. Attaining this level of power provides significant credibility that the SSHCL is a bonafide candidate to be one of the first (if not the first) directed energy weapon to be deployed in the battlefield. The success of Livermore’s SSHCL program, which won a 2002 R&D 100 Award has led to other applications such as the Diode-Pumped Pulsed Laser for Mine Clearing (DP-PLMC), which won a 2004 R&D 100 Award for its promise of revolutionizing the practice of demining. The high-energy laser pulses generated by the DP-PLMC vaporize the residual moisture in the soil, allowing the laser pulses to effectively burrow through to the underlying mine. Once exposed, the mine can be deflagrated safely, with personnel out of harms way.

The FY2005 Defense Appropriation Bill signed by President Bush in August 2004 provides $66.2 million to support the High Energy Laser-Joint Technology Office (HEL-JTO) in Albuquerque, which oversees the allocation of defense funding for high energy laser research and development. Another sign that laser technology in military applications is but in its infancy.


Concept of an SSHCL countermine system. An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) precedes a convoy to mark regions of interest (ROIs) for further inspection. A follow-on unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) confirms and marks the landmine location. The SSHCL then engages and neutralizes the landmine.

Population: unknown

Specifications: unknown

Crew/passengers: none

Main sources:
- High Energy Laser Weapon Systems Applications
- Photon Science & Applications
- Lawrence Livermore National Labs

Livermore's long-lasting commitment

Military strategists have dreamed for years of being able to stop an incoming missile in midair. In March 1983, President Reagan unveiled a new vision of national security based on protecting lives rather than threatening them. This announcement kicked off the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—popularly known as Star Wars—that invigorated weapons work at Lawrence Livermore National Labs for many years to come. In the 1980s, novel nuclear and nonnuclear defense concepts were explored by Laboratory researchers to protect the nation from ballistic missile attack. Laboratory researchers also devised the concept of Brilliant Pebbles for nonnuclear defense against missiles in boost phase, as part of the SDI.

Work at the Laboratory on SDI continued into the early 1990s before being discontinued after the end of the Cold War. Technologies developed for SDI were used in numerous later projects. As an example, sensors and cameras developed for Brilliant Pebbles became components of the Clementine moon-mapping project in 1994, allowing to demonstrate key component technologies. SDI technologies may now also have a role in 21st century missile defense. The SDI's missile interception goal of the 1980s is now one of the Department of Defense (DoD) goal today. The Laboratory has therefore continued to provide an ongoing contribution to the evaluation of candidate missile intercept technologies.

For instance, Livermore’s Remote Optical Characterization Sensor Suite (ROCSS), integrated onto a HALO aircraft, will observe missile intercept experiments and will spectroscopically “look” for a particular chemical contained in the target warhead and whose release after intercept would indicate target kill. The jet’s high altitude not only keeps it above the weather but also provides for increased atmospheric transmission of infrared light. Many onboard sensors, including several of Livermore’s, collect data in the infrared wavelengths. Five Livermore instruments fly onboard the HALO to collect data on the final boost of the interceptor rocket and then on the kill vehicle’s collision with the reentry vehicle, including the ROCSS telescopes, which collect light through a window specially designed to transmit infrared light and channel it to the instruments via fiber-optic lines.

DoD has now hired the Boeing Corporation as the lead system integrator for a weapons system to intercept an incoming ballistic missile. Boeing’s interceptor for the Ground-Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) program is currently being flight tested. For the flight tests, a missile loaded with a “kill” vehicle is launched from Reagan Test Range at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, to target the mock weapon-laden reentry vehicle of a missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Under contract to Boeing, the Livermore project's sensors will provide data which will help DoD determine whether the interceptor met the goal of killing the target missile.