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Anthony F.


Directed Energy Weapons

Technology Overview

Research into directed energy devices was conducted as early as World War II, when the

Nazis experimented with sonic weaponry. However, since the Hollywood sensation, Star Wars

was released in 1977; the public’s perception of directed energy weapons (often dubbed “ray-

guns” or “death rays”) has been fundamentally ill-informed. For the sake of parsimony, this

paper will focus solely on weapons that directly cause damage. While certain technologies could

be considered “directed energy devices” in the strictly technical sense of the term, this discussion

will exclude technologies that do not cause physical harm to their targets such as electronic

countermeasures, designed for communications interference. Two classes of directed energy

weapons sit on the threshold of practical military significance: systems that employ laser-based

technology and those that utilize radio frequencies (commonly known as high-power

microwaves, or HPMs).

Laser-based systems are by far the most publicized, as well as the most promising of

directed energy technologies. By exciting atoms, lasers generate powerful bursts of single-

frequency, single-phase photons capable of being focused and directed using mirrors.

Weaponized lasers are typically gas dynamic and use fuel or a turbine to propel the lasing media

through a circuit or sequential orifices. Due to the intense heat and pressure, the medium forms a

plasma and lases, the beam can then be aimed in any direction.

Despite several fruitless decades of development efforts, laser weapons have recently

become a technological reality. Nevertheless, the technology is still plagued by operational

drawbacks and various developmental obstacles. Fielding a reliable laser weapon has proven

exceedingly challenging, primarily due to the difficulty in maintaining the impeccability of the

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high-precision mirrors and windows in its resonating cavity, in addition to their inherent

vulnerability to environmental obscurants like dust and water vapor. Secondly, attacking a target

behind cover or shielding requires the use of gravity, but gravity’s effect on light is practically

non-existent, revealing another inherent operational drawback: lasers cannot be used for indirect


Lasers have typically suffered from three developmental problems that have significantly

contributed to the delay in fielding an effective system. An effect known as “blooming” causes

the laser to defocus and lose energy due to the atmospheric plasma breakdown that occurs when

energy densities reach approximately 1 mega-joule per cm2. A second problem is that when the

laser strikes its intended surface area, evaporated material can effectively shade the target, thus

mitigating the weapon’s effect. The final, but probably most developmentally prohibitive issue,

is the high energy requirements associated with laser weapons. The technologies currently being

used for storing, conducting, and directing energy are incapable of powering a mobile weapon

for combat purposes. This lack of portability is primarily due to the bulky nature of the

equipment needed to power and cool modern lasers, which emit as much heat as they do energy.

Parallel to that of lasers, another promising research track involves the use of radio-

frequencies, specifically microwaves. Operating in the low-frequency, long-wavelength section

of the electromagnetic spectrum, high-power microwaves (HPMs) are capable of rendering

electronic systems ineffectual. HPMs might not possess the strategic flexibility offered by lasers,

but they do share similar qualities (like light-speed transmission), and even possess certain

operational advantages (such as requiring very little in the way of logistical support and being

able to propagate in adverse weather). Like radio transmitters on a swivel, HPMs can be aimed to

disable or destroy electronic systems and cause explosions by generating intense electromagnetic

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bursts of energy. It is worth pointing out, however, that in the strictly technically sense, the term

“microwave” only applies to the highest radio wave frequencies, typically in the gigahertz range.

Nevertheless, it has become commonplace to hear of all radio frequency-based directed energy

weapons being referred to as “high-power microwaves” in daily parlance.

Development Status

Directed energy has made substantial advancements thanks to innovative new research

efforts by Boeing, TRW, Lockheed-Martin and the United States Air Force, under the auspices

of the Missile Defense Agency. The airborne laser (ABL) was designed to detect the launch of

ballistic missiles and destroy them in flight. The ABL is currently undergoing a long-term test

phase at Edwards AFB. The ABL’s tracking system successfully demonstrated its accuracy when

a modified Boeing 747-400F, known as the “YAL-1A Airborne Laser” test fired its target

illuminator several times off the California coast on March 15th 2007. The program’s next phase

will involve integrating the targeting system with a chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL), a high-

energy device designed to destroy missiles in flight. The COIL is intended to be fired through the

plane’s nose turret and produce enough energy in a five second burst to power a typical

household for over an hour.

Another promising research endeavor currently underway concerns the Tactical High

Energy Laser (THEL). THEL is a promising new defense system that has been proven to be

capable of ballistic missile and battlefield rocket interception. THEL has successfully intercepted

over twenty BM-21/Fajr-3 rockets (also known as Katyushas), in addition to intercepting and

destroying artillery shells and multiple rockets launched in a single salvo. THEL’s operational

flexibility prompted an on-going effort to develop a mobile THEL (MTHEL), a vehicle-borne

system capable of air transport.

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Significant advancements have also been made in the development of infrared

countermeasure (IRCM) devices, particularly by the US Army and Air Force. IRCMs are

intended to use directed energy to destroy inbound missiles. The Air Force program aims to

develop an IRCM to protect transport aircraft from man-portable anti-aircraft missiles

(MANPADs) like Stingers, Chinese Anzas or Iranian Misagh missiles. The Army’s research

initiative is intended to create IRCMs to counter air and ground-launched anti-tank missiles.

However, one should note that such IRCMs would most likely be ineffective against anti-aircraft

systems that utilize multiple kinetic sub-munitions like the recently fielded British Starstreak


Solid-state laser technology has made significant advances in recent years, but the

ultimate goal of 100kw output levels remains out of reach (the current standard being

approximately 10kw). It is, as yet, unclear how soon an order-of-magnitude improvement can be

made to the performance of solid-state lasers. HPM weapons have also experienced some recent

development, but efforts to produce a first generation weapon have not focused on directed

energy. Instead, current research efforts are oriented around the concept of explosively-driven

HPM generators, something akin to electromagnetic pulse bombs.

Security Implications

Directed energy technology has myriad security implications. In continuum mechanics, a

laser-based directed energy weapon’s primary effect on its target is known as plastic shear: a

“non-fracturing, physical deformation”. In other words, the target’s surface area is explosively

evaporated. A million joules of energy delivered as a laser pulse would have the same effect as

200 grams of high explosives.

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ABL’s operational concept is not dissimilar to that of other airborne electronic-warfare

and intelligence platforms. Theoretically, a squadron of three ABLs, supported by an aerial

refueling plane like the Boeing KC-767 would establish a patrol pattern in friendly airspace yet

still within range of known or suspected missile launch facilities. Orbiting a given area in this

manner could provide defensive coverage of approximately 60,000 square kilometers.

The security implications of laser-based missile defense systems are staggering, but

directed energy weapons possess several tactical advantages over conventional offensive systems

as well. Unlike projectile weapons, laser beams are unencumbered by the constraints of gravity

or atmospheric drag and travel at the speed of light, so it is unnecessary to compensate for target

movement once the shot has been fired. In addition to being highly precise, their versatility

means that directed energy devices can be employed as both sensing devices as well as kill

mechanisms. Assuming the power source problem can be solved; their reliance on electricity

obviates the costly need for regularly re-supplying ammunition. Another inherent benefit is

light’s nugatory ratio of momentum to energy; this means that laser weapons fire completely

without recoil. Laser-based weapon’s ability to inhibit attacks by missiles and artillery implies

that those in possession of such systems will have achieved a strategic advantage in ground, air,

and space combat against an adversary that lacks them.

The ABL and other tactical lasers are not the only directed energy weapons capable of

suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations. HPM devices could be used against area

and point targets, potentially revolutionizing C4ISR denial, air defense suppression, as well as

ground vehicle interdiction. An HPM weapon attached to an unmanned combat aerial vehicle

(UCAV) could well prove to be the ultimate SEAD weapon. A microwave-armed UCAV would

be capable of flying along penetration corridors and taking radar and missile sites offline in

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preparation for the ingress of cruise missile or manned aircraft. This type of SEAD capability

would essentially obviate the need for dangerous “wild-weasel” attacks with costly HARM

missiles, or with even more expensive cruise-missiles strikes.

HPM weapons possess several military advantages over lasers. First, because HPMs can

have a wide-area effect, (depending on the power of the pulse generator and the specific

frequency being generated) everything within range will be attacked simultaneously; a

characteristic that can be particularly useful against imprecisely located targets. Second, HPMs

have the ability to make “system kills” by causing critical damage to electronic circuits,

components, and sub-systems, even when those systems have been turned off. Third, completely

isolating the target from conducting energy is the only effective countermeasure to HPMs, an

action that would probably result in a mission kill, effectively serving the attacker’s interests.

Finally, by their very nature, HPM weapons allow for reduced collateral damage, and since they

are inherently tunable, their intended effects can be graduated.

Future Outlook

Directed energy weapons technology stands to dramatically alter the conduct of warfare.

Nevertheless, it is more appropriately viewed as just one facet of the wider “Revolution in

Military Affairs” currently underway in the United States and several other countries. The advent

of digital technology significantly enhanced the speed and accuracy in the acquisition and

transmission of military information, in very much the same way that directed energy weapons

could potentially increase the speed and accuracy with which targets are engaged and destroyed.

For example, the primary limiting factor in contemporary air combat is an aircrafts armament

payload. Directed energy weapons have the potential to eliminate that restriction by replacing

cannons, and eventually, missiles as well. It would allow aircraft armed with such weapons to

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engage their targets more rapidly, in addition to providing greater engagement opportunities

against maneuvering aircraft and low-altitude, high-velocity, terrain-masking cruise missiles.

Although the effect of directed energy-armed aircraft on the battle-space might well be similar to

the advent of jet propulsion, prudence dictates that equipping aircraft with a combination of

missiles and directed energy weapons would be the best course of action for the foreseeable


Militaries seeking to integrate directed energy weapons into their current force structures

and operational concepts will face significant challenges. First, coordinating directed energy

operations with those of conventional forces on what could very well be a crowded battlefield

will not be simple. Given its intensive use of information technology, weapons deconfliction and

battle-space management will prove particularly daunting for the United States. Another problem

concerns the risk of friendly fire casualties. Although lasers are highly accurate, “HPM bombs”

are indiscriminate within their area of effect. Nevertheless, their relative technological simplicity

means that microwave bombs will likely be the first directed energy weapons to be fully

developed and fielded. Thus, the creation of appropriate procedures and guidelines governing the

use of HPM weapons is critical to ensuring the safety of friendly forces.

Directed energy weapons have been on the brink of technological feasibility for years,

but never have they been more critical to defense and national security as they are in today’s

information age. It is a reasonable assumption that the military importance of this technology

will only increase with time, and according to military history, success is not achieved by those

who first acquire a new technology, rather by those who realize its importance and learn to wield

it effectively.