Strategic Competition for Directed Energy Weapons: Repercussions for Future Warfare

Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) are said to have their genesis in 212 BC when Greeks used parabolic mirrors to direct sun rays to ablaze the approaching fleet of Roman ships during the siege of Syracuse. Later in the 1890s, the English writer H.G. Wells rejuvenated the concept of DEWs in his landmark work, “The War of the Worlds”, in which he spoke about the heat ray guns that are strikingly akin to present-day laser weapons. However, DEW remained a prerogative of movies and comics until the superpowers embarked on clandestine research development to create these super killers. In the present era, these technologies have matured enough that the exigency of DEWs and respective investments are burgeoning each year as military forces are expeditiously pursuing developing and deploying potent DEWs.

Directed Energy (DE) is a hypernym of technologies that generate concentrated and highly focused electromagnetic energy or atomic/subatomic particles, rather than the physical projectile, to target an object. DEWs are regarded as systems which employ DE to disable, damage, destroy, or incapacitate enemy facilities, equipment, or/and personnel. The categorisation of DEWs is as follows: 1) High Energy lasers (HEL), 2) High Power Microwave (HPM) weapons or radio frequency devices, and 3) neutral or charged particle beam weapons.

Lasers are archly concentrated energy beams in which energy travels by lenses and mirrors, permitting adjustments based on atmospheric or weather conditions. Besides destroying or damaging the targets with phenomenal speed, laser weapons do not require new projectiles during the movement of the target. Besides, lasers are of various types, such as free-electron, solid-state, and chemical lasers. Although lasers were invented in the 1960s, the requirement of power remained the major impediment to these weapons, causing a substantial delay in the onset of their maturation phase. The most sophisticated form of laser is the chemical laser, while the development of free-electron laser is a contemporary feat which makes it least suitable for weapon use. Laser weapons which are being deployed by the various armed forces are chiefly fibre lasers, a sub-category of solid-state lasers. The second category of DEWs, more advanced than HEL, entails high-powered microwaves coupled with millimetre waves. The microwave range of these weapons lies between 300MHz-300GHz, with the capability to derange electronic components and to produce graduated effects. Moreover, microwave frequencies, in contrast to lasers, are not affected by weather conditions and can penetrate dust, rain, and clouds. Particle Beam Weapons (PBWs), the least mature type of all DEWs, are based on producing a high-energy beam of either atomic or subatomic particles to harm the target by disheveling their molecular or/and atomic structure. Unlike HEL weapons and HPM weapons that channelise electromagnetic energy towards a particular target, PBWs direct kinetic energy into the atomic structure of the target and fall under the hard-kill weapon category.

Innovative and disruptive technologies possess enormous potential to spawn substantial operational advantages for military forces having the ability and willingness to leverage them.

The ever-escalating strategic pursuit for DEWs is illustrative of the states’ relentless efforts to seek long-term military-cum-technological dominance. The incorporation of DEWs, notably laser weapon technology, is one of the top-tier targets of the United States, which is evident from DEWs presently being deployed or tested by its armed forces. The list includes Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR), an HPM weapon to disable airborne targets, particularly drone swarms; Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD), an anti-drone weapon which can intercept artillery, rockets, mortars, and shells; Laser Weapon System Demonstrator (LWSD), a solid-state laser weapon to target drones at sea; and Self Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD), a fighter jet-based high energy laser system against surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. As far as China’s DEW capabilities are concerned, the Strategic Support Force of PLA is promptly cultivating the technological capabilities needed to field DEW systems for effective counter-space operations. Until 2016, the DEW programs of China were administrated and funded through the High-Tech Research and Development Plan termed as 863 Program.

However, particularities on incumbent DEW programs and systems remain scant due to their sensitive military nature. Currently, China is in possession of various DEWs, particularly ground-based laser systems of different power degrees, according to the report published by US Defense Intelligence Agency in 2022. Moreover, it has developed a solid-state pulse laser that can be mounted on satellites with the ability to either permanently blind satellites or dazzle their cameras, vaporise target surfaces, and blind human beings. Apart from lasers, China has also developed an HPM device named the Relativistic Klystron Amplifier (RKA) that can fulfil defensive and offensive purposes. In defensive capacity, RKA fastened with a satellite can detect the aberrant increase in electric currents as well as imbibe high-power microwaves prior to any damage. As for offensive capacity, it can be utilised to enkindle sensitive electronics of enemy satellites. With respect to Russia, it developed a microwave gun in 2015 that can disable drones’ radio electronics and precision warheads. It is also developing trailblazing satellite-blinding lasers called Kalina, which will use bright laser pulses to damage the sensors of satellites. The other laser dazzlers Russia has created include a truck-mounted laser system – Peresvet, and an airborne laser system – Sokol Eshelon. Israel is also actively investing in DEWs, evident from the successful testing of “Iron Beam”, a laser-missile defence system that can shoot down various aerial objects such as missiles, rockets, and drones.

Being a potentially revolutionary addendum to the future battlefield, DEWs will serve as strategic game changers and are likely to alter the course of warfare. The number of unique advantages and capabilities they provide over traditional weapons – on account of their precision engagement, scalable/controlled effect, low cost per shot, logistical benefits, and, most importantly, speed-of-light delivery – renders them a revolutionary technology. Moreover, low detectability and rapid engagement times are some other upsides of DEW. Besides lethal purposes, they can be employed for non-lethal functions such as dazzling or jamming adversary systems. DEWs act as a force multiplier, offering the warfighter to parry an increasing gamut of emerging threats.

HPM weapons offer non-kinetic means to impair the electronic and communications systems of the adversary, thus acting as counter-information or counter-electronic weapons. Per some defence analysts, these weapons can provide adequate area defence against swarms of autonomous aircraft systems and missile salvos. Moreover, in the case of anti-personnel configuration, HPM weapons might dispense means of convoy protection, perimeter defence, and non-lethal crowd control. With regards to HEL weapons, ground forces may use these weapons in discrete missions, including Counter – Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS); Counter – Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar (C-RAM); and Short-Range Air Defence (SHORAD) missions. Additionally, these weapons can be used to damage and temporarily disable/dazzle sensors and satellites, which could inhibit military communication, intelligence-gathering operations, and Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) systems employed to target weapons. As lasers travel at light’s speed, they could also be used to intercept hypersonic weapons during their boost phase. For a hypersonic missile travelling at Mach 25, a HEL weapon can intercept that missile at nearly 35,000 times its speed, making tracking and targeting convenient.

Innovative and disruptive technologies possess enormous potential to spawn substantial operational advantages for military forces having the ability and willingness to leverage them. The inimitable attributes of DEWs, including deep magazines, speed-of-light responsiveness, and ability to yield tailored and precise effects against multifaceted targets, could enable them to buttress various missions and beget new avenues for armed forces to acquire a disruptive advantage in warfare. Despite their innumerable benefits in warfare, the possible lethal impact of DEWs on international humanitarian law and wider international security, given the lack of structured debate and legal framework on such weapons, cannot be ruled out.

Safia Mansoor

Safia Mansoor is currently pursuing her M.Phil. in International Relations from the Kinnaird College for Women, Lahore.

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