Here Come the Lasers: The Dawn of Energy Weapons Is Here

July 24, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryWorldTechnologyLaser

Here Come the Lasers: The Dawn of Energy Weapons Is Here

Is it possible the maturation of one advanced technology can be such a disruptive innovation to the point where certain types of warfare begin to look different? 

Is it possible the maturation of one advanced technology can be such a disruptive innovation to the point where certain types of warfare begin to look different?

Directed-energy weapons—or “lasers,” as they are commonly known—present the possibility of transforming warfare due to numerous operational advantages, such as incredible speed and range, light-weight, improved accuracy, and limited collateral damage. [1] 

In some respects, this innovation is already on the brink of implementation. With forthcoming architectural changes, such as new platforms on which we can mount lasers, operational use could be just on the horizon. In other areas, however, development has stalled because of international laws prohibiting the use of directed-energy weapons against personnel.

It is crucial the defense industry find ways to harness the power of a discriminate laser weapon within the Law of Armed Conflict and continue to develop a technology which can target adversarial weapon systems and defend against inbound missiles. If the Law of Armed Conflict is adjusted to permit directed-energy weapons, which could minimize suffering to the most extent possible, using aerial lasers with the power to target personnel on the ground can redefine the way the U.S. Air Force utilizes airpower within the close air support, counterinsurgency, and counterterror attack missions.

(This first appeared in The Strategy Bridge here.)


The Law: 

Though we see news stories regarding the potential use of lasers against missiles and vehicles, using lasers for an anti-personnel purpose is not widely discussed. This is because today’s powerful and weaponized directed-energy weapons are capable of applying so much heat as to burn or melt an object. Thus, lasers can destroy most mechanized devices by means of ruining the computer processors with heat. [2] In order to limit unnecessary harm, the UN General Assembly voted to prohibit the anti-personnel use of incendiary weapons against combatants in 1972. [3] In 1977, Article 35 of the Geneva Conventions prohibited weapons that cause “superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.” [4] To meet this intent while taking advantage of today’s advanced technology, the Law of Armed Conflict should be amended to allow for new directed-energy weapons that intentionally minimize suffering. Experts suggest that an anti-personnel laser must direct several megawatts of energy at a soldier to burn them. [5] For the U.S. military to lawfully use directed-energy weapons against combatants would require the laser to generate even more lethal energy, enabling an instant incineration that does not cause unnecessary suffering.

Innovation Framework: 

Though the nature of war remains the same, the character of war—the way in which we fight—is subject to change, especially with the development of directed-energy weapons. [6] Lasers, of course, already exist, and the current state of technology allows us to apply enough power to burn through metal. [7] The innovative leap, then—is to take this weapon form, make it even more powerful, and mount it as an airborne weapon system; creating new linkages to complete the process. Architectural innovation, like this, is broken down into either  disruptive or sustaining innovation.[8]

A sustaining innovation is “improved performance along a traditional warfighting trajectory,” whereas a disruptive innovation is “improved performance along a nontraditional warfighting trajectory.” [9] Targeting directed-energy weapons against other weapon systems is an example of a sustaining innovation because the dynamic character of air warfare would evolve slowly from the status quo. If the Law of Armed Conflict would permit the use of anti-personnel aerial lasers, and technology improves so lasers are discriminate and minimize suffering to the most extent possible, these lasers could become a disruptive innovation, greatly changing the character of war.

Recommended: Forget the F-35: The Tempest Could Be the Future

Recommended: Why No Commander Wants to Take On a Spike Missile

Recommended: What Will the Sixth-Generation Jet Fighter Look Like?

Directed-Energy Weapons: Today and Tomorrow -

In order to foster an innovative culture and arrive at anti-personnel aerial lasers, development of directed-energy weapon technologies as defensive systems to incinerate incoming missiles—a sustaining innovation—should continue. As hypersonic missiles become more of a possibility, lasers capable of destroying a target at the speed of light might be the only method of defense against such weapons. In November 2017, for example, U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command expressed interest in testing the capabilities of lasers mounted on a KC-135 refueling tanker for self-defense. [10] In June 2017, Raytheon bolted a laser on an U.S. Army AH-64 Apache Helicopter and successfully destroyed an aerial target in a test environment. At sea, destroyers and cruisers are being equipped with lasers to defend themselves against drones and missiles. [11] As for ground-based systems, the U.S. military is placing lasers on short range air-defense vehicles as well. [12] This effort has already seen much progress since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan charged innovators with a heavy task by asking, “[What if] we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” [13] The biggest barrier to further development has been power storage; hence there will need to be a continued focus on developing batteries and compact power generation devices. [14]