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Long Story Short: Directed Energy Weapons: More Than a Game of Laser Tag
Directed Energy Weapons: Star Wars Redux?
Recent tests of prototype directed energy weapons (DEW) have made it clear that this form of weaponry has moved beyond just a theoretical concept. Although lasers were first demonstrated in 1960, advances in a wide range of science disciplines have allowed various forms of DEWs to be refined for both civilian and military uses. Weapons classified as DEWs include high energy lasers, electromagnetic railguns, and radio frequency weapons such as high-power microwaves and ultra-wideband weapons. So how close are we to the deployment of DEWs and what is driving the development of such weapons? Are the latest class of DEWs real or is this a Star Wars redux?
Advantages Over Kinetic Weapons. Directed-energy weapons have several advantages over conventional munitions. First, they transmit lethal force at the speed of light (about 300,000 kilometers per second). Second, their beams are not affected by the constraining effects of gravity or atmospheric drag. Third, they are extremely precise. Fourth, their effects can be tailored by varying the type and intensity of energy delivered against targets. Fifth, they have deep magazines and relatively low cost per shot. Finally, they are versatile in that they can be used both as sensing devices and kill mechanisms.
A Narrowing Technological Gap. The era of US military technological dominance is nearly over, with peers now at parity with the US. The development and deployment of DEWs could restore the technological gap, once again providing the US military with a competitive edge over peer and near-peer adversaries.
No Longer a Research Effort. What was once fantasy is becoming reality. The Army views DEWs as part of the Army’s modernization plan and expects to have a combat-ready laser weapon in the next four years. The US Navy plans to install a High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical dazzler with Surveillance weapon system on a destroyer in 2021. And the Air Force Research Lab has shown a high-power microwave system that creates a variety of effects on a target.Adversaries Advancing Own DEWs. As one would expect, peer and near-peer adversaries such as China, Russia, and North Korea, are all advancing their own DEW plans
A Return to A Space Arms Race? A space arms race with China and Russia, potentially costing billions of dollars, could be the end result of any US efforts to put lasers and DEWs into space, according to opponents of such a move.
Things Never Change. “America’s ability to project conventional power abroad is eroding swiftly as state and non-state actors acquire advanced capabilities to offset the US military’s strengths across all operating domains—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. Potential adversaries are pursuing guided weapons and other sophisticated systems that are designed to threaten the US military’s freedom of action and its overseas basis.” Those words were written in an April 2012 report entitled “Changing the Game: The Promise of Directed Energy Weapons” and are almost exactly the same words being used today to push forward DEWs.
Are DEWs Legal? The legality of DEWs remains open to debate. “Certain DEW may have the potential to circumvent existing legal restrictions and prohibitions on weapons….” Other existing prohibitions, such as causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering to combatants, may be challenged by the new class of DEWs.
And What About the Environment. The environmental impact of DEWs is unknown. There appears to be little public data and considerable uncertainty about the environmental and health effects of DEWs.
To remain the world’s dominant military power, the US must research and develop new methods of counteracting peer and near-peer adversaries. The development of DEWs potentially could provide the U.S. military with a significant advantage over its peers. The Federal government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars to explore the feasibility of such weapons. It remains to be seen if the investments will pay off.
https://jnlwp.defense.gov/Press-Room/In-The-News/Article/1809399/unleash-directed-energy-weapons/ George Galdorosi, April 1, 2019
https://taskandpurpose.com/army-laser-weapon-prototyping, Jared Keller, August 2, 2019
https://news.usni.org/2019/09/05/pentagon-shifts-focus-on-directed-energy-weapons-technology, Ben Werner, September 5, 2019
https://www.defense.gov/explore/story/Article/1824471/ready-aim-fire-hypersonics-directed-energy-lasers/, David Vergun, April 25, 2019
https://www.militaryaerospace.com/unmanned/article/16707237/laser-weapons-show-their-stuff-in-realworld-conditions, Paul McLeary, January 16, 2019
https://www.npr.org/2019/04/08/707689746/trumps-plan-to-zap-incoming-missiles-with-lasers-is-back-to-the-future, Geoff Brumfiel, April 8, 2019