Directed Energy Weapons Are a Near-Reality on the Battlefield

September 16, 2020 Updated: September 16, 2020

Directed energy weapons are finally set to play a serious role on the battlefield.

The idea of the death ray was proposed as long ago as 1935. But inventors soon ditched the idea after calculating it needed vast energy impossible to muster at the time. Their research instead spawned a different electromagnetic device: radar.

Eighty-five years later, and the technology for what is now known as Directed Energy Weapons has matured enough for them to start playing roles normally filled by artillery and missiles.

The military has been developing directed energy weapons of one kind or another since the 1960s—but only now is the missile-zapping technology envisioned by Reagan’s Star Wars a near-reality.

The original 1935 vision of anti-personnel death ray has been explored from time to time, but has now generally been put aside in favor of machines that target other machines.

In May this year, an operational laser mounted on a Navy ship shot down a drone during a test over the Pacific.

Epoch Times Photo
A video still shows a drone being targeted and disabled by a Solid State Laser-Technology Maturation Laser Weapon System Demonstrator (LWSD) onboard the USS Portland on May 1, 2020. (Department of Defense/Navy)

The breakthrough isn’t just from technology that can focus so much energy at one point in space. The beam also has to precisely track the same spot, within inches, on a target moving at 500 miles an hour several miles away, for about five seconds.

Another type of directed energy weapons use microwave radiation like a mini pulse bomb to disable the electronic components of targets, instead of causing physical damage like the lasers.

“Lasers are being matured right now within the Department of Defense.  There are several programs for doing so,” Bryan Clark, a senior defense technology analyst at the Hudson Institute, told The Epoch Times. “The Navy has a laser on one of its ships right now.”

That 60-kilowatt laser is designed to take out drones, or perhaps rockets, according to Clark. “It wouldn’t really be useful against cruise missiles or ballistic missiles.”

Missile Killers in the Pipeline

“The idea is that this is a stepping stone to a more powerful laser,” he says.

Epoch Times Photo
The USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf on Nov. 17, 2014. (U.S. Navy/John F. Williams/Released)

From next year, the Navy is planning to mount lasers on its latest class of destroyers with a 150-300 kilowatt output.

“Once you get up into the 300-kilowatt range those lasers would have capability against cruise missiles—depending on which cruise missile it is and how fast it’s going,” says Clark.

Missile defense is a priority for U.S. generals who are trying to counter Russia and China’s large array of missiles, built up over the last decade.

China, in particular, has amassed the biggest arsenal of long-range missiles in the world over the last decade specifically to neuter the supremacy of U.S. aircraft carriers and their jets in the Pacific.

At one point, it was thought that one answer to countering missiles might lie with the development of the rail gun, which uses electromagnetic energy in place of explosives to launch projectiles.

Epoch Times Photo
A HEL-MD demonstrator laser system mounted on a standard Army heavy expanded mobility tactical truck (HEMTT) goes through testing at White Sands testing facility in New Mexico on Oct. 31, 2014. (Jose Salazar/DoD)

But Clark says that the railgun hasn’t turned out to be as much of a game-changer as was hoped. Rail guns wear out quickly, have a similar rate of fire to a regular artillery gun, and cost more.

“The only benefit is that the projectiles go out faster and potentially could hit different classes of targets,” he says.

(The Pentagon is instead adapting the hypersonic projectiles developed for the railgun to work as regular artillery rounds.)

When it comes to missile defense, Clark says that directed energy weapons have turned out to have more potential than the rail gun, but still have limitations.

He says that they provide new options, but they won’t be as much of a game-changer for future battlefields as autonomous systems.

“What directed energy does is simply replace what is done today with surface-to-air missiles or replaces a gun-type weapon.

Of course, directed energy weapons have the advantage of not running out of ammunition.

Unlike projectiles or missiles that can maneuver and arc around the curvature of the earth, lasers can only shoot in the line of sight.

Clark notes that air-craft mounted lasers won’t have such problems.

Another way of avoiding the line-of-sight problem for missiles defense would be to mount weapons on satellites, he says.  But that raises the problem of how to charge up a power-hungry weapon in space.

“Satellite power generation systems are designed to provide low levels of voltage or low levels of current over a very long period of time, not large amounts of current over a short period of time. That was one of the challenges that Star Wars ran into.”

A Star Wars Spin-Off

Brent Sadler, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, agrees that directed energy is not a panacea.

“Some traditional or rail gun capability will be needed if atmospheric, range, or system maintenance requires a secondary armament that is not Directed Energy.”

On the whole, however, Salder says that the advent of directed energy weapons “will be big and alter the design of future warships.”

“Directed Energy (DE) weapons have different power requirements so ships of the future will need to consider this in their design, as well as maintenance requirements.”

“That said, not having to carry hundreds of rounds of ammo frees up space and weight—think faster ships that are potentially smaller with some reduced manning.”

Sadler says that the development of directed energy weapons goes back to Reagan’s Star Wars initiative which produced AEGIS BM intercept ability and interceptors.

He says that directed energy technology has been held back by difficulties in producing the power levels and also in being able to mitigate atmospheric impacts.

“I think what you are seeing is the culmination of better processing power, new material breakthroughs for power level, as well as increased investment in these systems.”

Epoch Times Photo
The USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf on Nov. 17, 2014. (U.S. Navy/John F. Williams/Released)

“Power supply is not really an issue for design, but an engineering question for how you distribute power in a ship.”

Sadler says ship-mounted lasers, for now, are most likely to currently used in the field to defend against drones and small boats “like the Iranians use in the Strait of Hormuz.”

But he says that the military is “very close” to be able to shoot down missiles, but must first get the power up to the 300 kilowatts to make missile defense viable.

“That isn’t to say that systems with less power could be paired with multiple platforms sooner to have an additive effect in shooting down missiles—e.g. three ships with 150kw lasers focusing fire on a single missile.”

An Extension of Electronic Warfare

In addition to lasers, directed energy weapons also include microwave emitters.

Unlike lasers, these are designed to essentially stun targets or fry their circuits, rather than creating physical damage.

“It’s basically a mini EMP,” says Clark. “It damages the electronics inside of a computer or inside of a guidance system. So it could be as offensively against infrastructure, damaging their electronics or you could use it against an incoming cruise missile to damage electronics and hopefully make it crash.”

It is possible to harden equipment against these weapons with an onboard faraday cage, says Clark.

Russia and China have been throwing money at directed energy weapons, says Clark, and some are concerned that they may be ahead of the United States.

But whilst even if they have pushed a little further with the underlying technology, he says they lack operational capability.

Russia and China tend to field the latest military tech more as “a messaging tool,” he says, before they have put in place any military doctrines, training, logistics, or maintenance.

“The U.S. military takes longer, but when eventually these things show up, but they’ve got a whole, support infrastructure behind them.”

“When these lasers start showing up on Navy ships—every new DDG-51 Destroyer  is going to have a laser on it—they are going to have a whole logistics and support infrastructure behind them, a new training program for people to learn to operate them.”

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