Whether future wars are fought with handheld “laser guns” in the near future isn’t exactly likely, but “directed-energy weapons” (DEWS) are quickly becoming a reality. The technology behind DEWs has matured and now military planners are transitioning towards practical and cost-effective field development. If successfully developed and deployed, DEWs could be quite revolutionary in the long-term.
The question is whether it is actually a viable technology and exactly how close we are to developing a reliable DEW.
“The directed energy community has already successfully fielded both High Power Microwave (HPM) and High Energy Laser (HEL) weapon systems,” explained David Stoudt, senior executive advisor and engineering fellow for directed energy at Booz Allen Hamilton.
“These fielded prototypes typically represent leading-edge capabilities that have not had the benefits and resources of a formal program of record,” Stoudt told The National Interest via an email. “In addition, these one-off systems are often developed using a rapid acquisition process to meet urgent operational needs resulting in higher risk to the program getting cut or altered before it’s completed.”
Stoudt added that there are ongoing programs, particularly related to HEL weapons, which could result in more robust and reliable DE systems being provided to the warfighters. “In particular, over the next one to three years, multiple Army HEL systems mounted on Stryker vehicles, and different types of directed energy systems like dazzlers and HPMs mounted on Navy surface combatants should result in much higher reliability of these weapons than previously seen in fielded prototypes.”
War has often been about killing the enemy—but it is possible that DEWs could present an opportunity to develop a non-lethal deterrent. China has explored developing a potentially non-lethal laser weapon, but we might not be that far from the idea of “set your weapon to stun” as we’ve seen in science fiction.
“What makes directed energy so unique is its wide range of anti-material and anti-personnel capabilities, and unlike kinetic weapons in general, DE weapons can be dialed from non-lethal to lethal giving warfighters much more flexibility,” said Stoudt.
The other consideration is that such weapons could have applications beyond targeting human soldiers to kill them.
“Shooting down a missile in flight is an excellent application of DE’s anti-material lethal capabilities,” added Stoudt. “For anti-personnel applications, what truly differentiates DE is the ability to cause ‘reversible’ and ‘non-reversible’ effects.”
This could also have uses off the battlefield, including crowd control and could be less dangerous to civilians than rubber bullets or even tear gases.
“Directed energy systems like the millimeter wave Active Denial System, which creates a heating sensation on the skin, and laser dazzlers, which prevents a person from looking in the direction of the laser, are both reversible capabilities because there are no residual physical effects,” noted Stoudt.
The use of crowd control weapons—notably rubber bullets—have been questioned because those can still do real harm especially at close range. DEWs might be a good alternative, and it is unlikely any country or human rights organization would complain about such non-lethal weapons.
“To my knowledge, there are no policies currently in place that would prevent the United States from fielding lethal anti-personnel DE capabilities, however, the U.S. would never do so without careful consideration of existing Treaties, the Laws of War, U.S. policy, and a full legal review as part of a formal approval process before the capability could be declared a legal weapon in the U.S. inventory,” said Stoudt. “As for what our adversaries would do, we should hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
Small Scale DEWs
One reason it is unlikely we could see DEWs on the battlefield anytime soon is that these require a significant energy—which is why it is more likely these would be employed on warships and only large land vehicles.
For that reason, it could be a while before a handheld “blaster” is available, but that doesn’t mean that the weapon wouldn’t still be practical for warfighters.
“In recent years, DoD has made significant advancements in reducing the size, weight, power, cost (SWAP-C) and cooling requirements for directed energy weapons so that they can be fielded on trucks, smaller vehicles, CONEX vans, and of course large surface combatants,” said Stoudt. “What tends to drive the size of the DE weapon is the amount of average power and cooling that is required to support the system. As our capabilities grow more sophisticated and SWAP-C constraints continue to be reduced, we can expect to see DE systems mounted on aircrafts, and other, progressively smaller, land and seacrafts.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.