Recent Developments in Laser Weapons and The Assessment of Their Implications for Space Security



Clay Moltz,

Date and Time

December 3, 2009 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


Reuben W. Hills Conference Room

FSI Contact

A. Nancy Contreras

The term laser weapon implies the use of a laser as part of a so-called directed energy weapon (DEW). In that case, the laser energy is causing the target damage. Military research led to the development of experimental lasers with continuous output powers up to 140 kW in 1966 and two Megawatts in 1980. However, those systems were huge and not part of laser weapon systems.

Since the 1980s the development in the military continued. Remarkably, civilian lasers, developed for industrial machining, have now reached output powers, which can be useful for DEW applications, too. Recently, several prototypes came into operation. On the one hand, there are industry-funded projects that use civilian of-the-shelf industrial lasers. On the other hand, there is government-funded research, which aims at high power laser systems. Major defense companies in the United States and elsewhere are working on both tracks.

Anti-satellite (ASAT) laser engagements would be a revolutionary laser application, as they would in principle enable an option of attacks on satellites with only minor debris. At the moment, attacking satellites implies the use of missiles with kinetic or explosive warheads. A kinetic impact creates debris, which would be harmful to the attacker's space assets, too. For that reason, space faring nations are discouraged from using kinetic energy attacks.

This fact enacts a kind of "natural" arms control. Lasers could change this situation, if they are used to heat up satellites just to a point where their electronics are damaged or only to impair their sensors. Hence, attacks on satellites would be more likely, if laser DEW with anti-satellite capabilities are fielded in peacetime. In a time of crisis, this would create additional political instabilities, as satellites are important early warning and reconnaissance assets.  A deployment of laser ASATs could eventually lead to an arms race in space. In order to make this scenario less likely arms control mechanism could be implemented.

This talk will focus on the technological background of laser ASATs. After a short introduction into recent technological developments, it will be examined whether current laser technology has the ability to endanger satellites. To achieve this, a physics-based method has been devised to assess laser DEW engagements. Damage mechanisms as well as possible distinctions between industrial laser setups and laser weapons will be examined in greater detail.  Options for controlling laser ASATs and obstacles for the implementations of such controls will be introduced.

Jan Stupl is a Postdoctoral Fellow at CISAC. His research concerns the current developments in laser technology regarding a possible application of lasers as an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), as well as the proliferation of ballistic missiles. The research on laser ASATs focuses on damage mechanisms, the potential sources and countries of origin of laser ASATs and ways to curb their international proliferation. Regarding missiles, Jan is interested in the methods which are used to acquire ballistic missiles and possible ways to control this process.

Before coming to CISAC, Jan was a Research Fellow at the Institute of Peace Research and Security Policy (IFSH) at the University of Hamburg, Germany. His PhD dissertation was a physics-based analysis of future of High Energy Lasers and their application for missile defense and focused on the Airborne Laser missile defense system. This work was jointly supervised by the IFSH, the Institute of Laser and System Technologies at Hamburg University of Technology and the physics department of Hamburg University, where he earned his PhD in 2008.

Jan studied physics at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany and at Warwick University in Coventry, UK. He concluded his undergraduate physics degree with a thesis in laser physics, receiving a German National Diploma in Physics in 2004. His interest in security policy and international politics was fuelled by an internship at the United Nations in New York in 2003.

Clay Moltz joined the National Security Affairs faculty of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in June 2007. Since November 2008, he has held a joint appointment with the Space Systems Academic Group at NPS. He currently teaches Space and National Security, Nuclear Strategy and National Security, International Relations, and Northeast Asian Security. Prior to his appointment at NPS, he served for 14 years in various positions at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, including: deputy director from 2003-2007, director of the Newly Independent States Nonproliferation Program from 1998-2003, and founding editor of The Nonproliferation Review from 1993-98. He was also a faculty member in the Monterey Institute’s Graduate School of International Policy Studies.

Dr. Moltz received his Ph.D. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. He also holds an M.A. in Russian and East European Studies and a B.A. in International Relations (with Distinction) from Stanford University. Dr. Moltz worked previously as a staff member in the U.S. Senate and has served as a consultant to the NASA Ames Research Center, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, and the Department of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. He held prior academic positions at Duke University and at the University of California, San Diego.