Laser Weapon Systems for Nuclear Missile Defense

Anthony Onyeador
January 29, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: LaWS Laser System (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

All out nuclear war has not been so iminent since the end of the Soviet Union. With the US and North Korea playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse, in the worst case scenario, protection against nuclear missiles would provide relief to the citizens that live on the West Coast of the United States. In November, Congress approved an additional $4 billion in spending on cyberweapons and anti-missile aircrft to deal with North Korea. [1] However, the Navy's laser weapon system (shown in Fig. 1), or LaWS, could provide anti-missile services at the speed of light, increasing the accuracy of anti-missile weapon systems.

Current Nuclear Missile Defense

The United States has a $40 billion program to protect itself and its allies. [2] The patriot air and missile defense system has the shortest range and is intended to defend small groups of troops. The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, THAAD, is based only in Guam and South Korea and is designed to defend short and medium range missiles. [2] The Aegis defense system is used to intercept ballistic missiles before re-entry, and covers a wider area than the THAAD system. [2] Lastly, there is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, GMD, that uses a global network of radar, sensors, and surface-to-air missile to protect all 50 states.

However, these systems don't end up as successful as you would hope. Philip Coyle from the center of Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, gave it an 'F', citing poor intercept results in tests that were designed to succeed. [2] Failure rates have been as high as 60 percent since 2002. [2] Another limitation is that the system is designed for rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, or unauthorized missile releases. Countries like Russia and China launching full-on assaults would over load the system because they have too many missiles. [2] Nuclear weapons are much more devastating than the regular ballistic missiles, so alternative defense systems are needed to enhance our protective capabilities.

How LaWS Works

The anti-missile system is placed aboard a ship and uses a beam of light to intercept the target. The light produced isn't in the visible spectrum, making it undetectable. The laser heats the target with light until it is destroyed, malfunctions or is disabled. [3] The lasers use a doped crystal, energizing it to release photons of the same energy in a tight focused beam. Multiple lasers are used and can be overlapped onto a small area. [3] Since the laser heats the target, accurate tracking is needed. The system uses radar and optical systems to track the target once heating begins.


The LaWS systems shows potential as a counter nuclear option as well as a deterrant to standard ballistic missiles. Since the beam travels at the speed of light, once it locks on to the target, the process of incapacitation is started. It is a costly method, but tensions are high between two nuclear powers and the cost would be well worth it in the event of a nuclear attack.

© Anthony Onyeador. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work99 in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. E. Sanger and W. J. Broad, Downing North Korean Missiles Is Hard. So the U.S. Is Experimenting," New York Times, 16 Nov 17.

[2] L. Epatko, "Could the U.S. Actually Shoot down a North Korean Missile?," PBS, 28 Nov 17.

[3] H. Fountain, "Laser," New York Times, 13 May 13.