Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images
Military

Nice Superweapon. Too Bad You Can't Afford to Fire It.

The Pentagon is looking into lasers and flying anvils to cut into staggering munitions costs.

Talk about taking a bazooka to kill a fly: A U.S. general reported last week that an unnamed ally used a $3.4 million Patriot missile to shoot down a hostile $200 commercial drone. General David Perkins's point wasn't that this was a technically remarkable feat -- although it certainly was given the tiny target -- but to point out yet another asymmetric advantage global terrorists' hold: it costs the West an unconscionable amount of money to combat even the most basic ad-hoc threats.

For the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon stocked up on $500,000 ambush-resistant vehicles and $150,000 bomb-disposal robots for protection against improvised explosives put together for a few hundred dollars. Unmanned aircraft have proved one the most effective tools in fighting jihadis, but consider the cost of a single strike: a Reaper drone made by General Atomics has a sticker price of $17 million, costs at least $2,500 an hour to fly, and fires a $100,000 Hellfire Romeo missile made by Lockheed Martin Corp.

And it's not just the jihadis using low tech to their financial advantage. The U.S. and its allies have spent billions protecting ships off the Horn of Africa from Somali pirates in simple skiffs. Iran sows fear among the lumbering tankers and military ships in the Persian Gulf with its swarms of tiny speedboats. Even China, now a first-rate power, has more than 100,000 old-fashioned naval mines, while the U.S. Navy's next generation anti-mine craft, the $450 million littoral combat ship, is barely seaworthy.

The Pentagon is not unaware of these economics. This month, Lockheed announced it had successfully tested a truck-born "directed energy weapon" system -- i.e., a laser beam -- that achieved a 58 kilowatt blast. It is initially expensive, but its cost per-use will be negligible. Not like those missiles that cost $100,000 a pop.

Lockheed will start shipping the weaponry to the Army within months. Two years ago, the company used a laser with half as much power to blast a truck engine a mile away, and says the new weapon will be effective in downing both incoming rockets and drones.

The Army's not alone in learning to love lasers. The Navy, which has been testing energy weapons on the amphibious transport ship Ponce in the Persian Gulf, this month decided to forge ahead with its SeaSaber 60 kW system, which it hopes to deploy by 2020. And the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency is experimenting with airborne lasers carried by drones.

The beautiful part of all this expensive machinery: each blast costs about a dollar.

Another attempt to cut back on munitions costs involves the Navy's stealthy new destroyer, the Zumwalt. The service got a flurry of bad publicity last year when it was disclosed that a single shell for the destroyer's 155 millimeter gun system can cost upwards of $1 million, making it in effect too valuable to actually use. But the Zumwalt is basically a $4 billion floating experiment, and the Navy will use it to test a new electromagnetic railgun, which in theory will fire a 23-pound projectile every six seconds at Mach 7 possibly as far as 250 miles. The technology is a ways off -- in large part because of the enormous amount of energy the ship would have to produce -- but if perfected, it would in theory be able to fire cheap projectiles no more sophisticated than flying anvils. (The Navy is also looking at a munition containing tungsten projectiles at a pricey $25,000 per shot.) 

There is no turning back from the Pentagon's high-tech vision of the future. The next phase is the so-called "third offset" initiated by outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work, which envisions artificially intelligent machines complementing the battlefield skills of human troops. The road from there to killer robots, although an ethical minefield, seems inevitable. But it seems clear that both the military and the "defense industrial base" that feeds on it understand that while weapons will get endlessly more expensive, it's time to watch the bottom line on the munitions they fire.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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