The Department of Defense's High-Energy Laser Technology Program--Direction and Focus

C-PSAD-81-3: Published: Dec 2, 1980. Publicly Released: Dec 2, 1980.

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GAO reviewed the High-Energy Laser Technology Program of the Department of Defense (DOD). Since the late 1960's, DOD has been pursuing the technology to determine the feasibility of developing high-energy laser weapon systems. If proven to be useful weapons, lasers could destroy or incapacitate selected targets. According to DOD, such weapons could provide significant supplements to existing weaponry and fill voids in some mission applications in both the tactical and strategic areas. In addition to speed, other expected advantages are that the weapon would be less affected by the evasive maneuvering of targets, would provide multi-engagement and rapid retargeting capabilities, and would minimize collateral damage.

The high-energy laser program is the largest single technology-based program DOD has underway. To date, DOD has spent about $1.5 billion and plans an additional $1 billion through fiscal year 1985. Decisions on whether to prototype a high-energy laser weapon have been deferred to 1985 and possibly beyond. DOD has accomplished several laser technology advances. However, many fundamental issues remain to be resolved before the overall feasibility of developing a laser weapon system can be determined. The technology necessary to reach decisions on weapon feasibility is not available. The Directed Energy Programs Office was recently established to manage and direct the program. However, the Director of this office has only one staff member and the office can do little more than attempt to prevent duplication among the independently managed programs. As a result, the services and DOD continue in their independent attempts to develop technologies for various applications. However, to date, there has been no assessment by DOD of how high-energy laser technology could best serve the national security needs. A recent Defense Science Board study recommended that the high-energy laser program objective be redefined and that its management be restructured to a centralized approach. GAO believes that the recommendation would be a first step toward providing more focus and direction to the program.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status:

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should perform an assessment considering the high-energy laser technology available now, the high-energy laser technology potentially available in the short- and long-term, and the military needs which high-energy laser weapons might best be able to satisfy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status:

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should reconsider the decision not to restructure the High-Energy Laser Technology Program management approach.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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