The US Missile Defense Agency moved one step closer to their laser-equipped unmanned air vehicle with a plan to compete a low power laser demonstrator for missile defense.

Before MDA equips a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV with a high-energy laser that could kill an intercontinental ballistic missile in the boost phase, the agency must establish beam stability at long range and the ability to dwell on a single spot on a target, Richard Matlock, MDA’s advanced technology program executive, tells FlightGlobal. MDA is aiming for a low-power flight test by 2020 and beam stability testing by 2021, he says.

As MDA forges ahead with its laser UAV, the agency is taking cues from the defunct US Air Force airborne laser system (ABL) programme. While ABL proved beam control, MDA is looking to integrate electric lasers on a smaller platform rather than house chemical lasers on a gargantuan Boeing 747-200.

“We’re looking to scale up the solid state lasers to a level that makes sense for boost phase,’ Matlock says. “We’re looking to do a low power laser demonstrator to understand the concept of operations for using high altitude aircraft to do this, as well as the need to point the beam at long range and keep that beam very stable on its target.”

MDA released a broad agency announcement 26 August and is planning an 8 September industry day for the low power demonstration. Besides MDA’s decision to use an electric, solid-state laser, the BAA will help inform what type of laser, package or platform could be used for the eventual UAV concept. The agency could award two contract awards in 2017 for a two-phase demonstration and could continue with two designs through the second phase of the program, according to the BAA. The first phase would include a 12-month design period with a technical design review, while Phase 2 would include design, build and test.

Earlier this year, MDA awarded five contracts to Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to produce concepts for an airborne low power demonstrator.

Under an MDA contract, General Atomics recently completed precision tracking demonstrations on its MQ-9 Reaper using Raytheon’s Multi-Spectral Targeting System-C electro-optical/infrared turret. While Raytheon's MTS-B system has short- and mid-wave infrared (IR) sensors, the MTS-C’s long-wave IR sensor allows the system to track cold bodies or ballistic missiles in their cruise phase.

While the laser UAV would prosecute ballistic missiles in the boost phase rather than the cruise phase, General Atomics’ work will inform the low power demos which may lead into the operational boost phase defense system, MDA spokesman Chris Johnson told FlightGlobal. Following the precision tracking demonstrations with passive sensors, MDA plans to move onto laser tracking in fiscal 2019, Matlock says.

Today, the US missile defense system works primarily in the mid-course phase of the target’s trajectory but the agency does not have the ability to destroy a ballistic missile in the boost phase. But a layered system, including a boost phase kill option, would improve missile defense, Matlock says.

“If we can destroy the targets in their boost phase, then that will reduce the challenge of the mid-course phase significantly,” he says. “Because we’ll have destroyed the warhead and all the objects that might confuse our sensors long before their on their path to the homeland.”

As the US Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Special Operations develop their own laser programs for fighter jets and the AC-130 gunship, the services have faced extreme challenges with aeromechanical jitter and shooting lasers through the atmosphere. But MDA’s UAV would fly far above 35,000 feet, which could simplify beam control issues, Matlock says.

“We don’t have to adjust the beam for all the disturbances in the atmosphere,” he says. “[It] doesn’t make it go away entirely, but does reduce the challenge there.”