After decades of research and development, directed-energy weapons are becoming an operational reality. Such weapons generate streams of electromagnetic energy that can be precisely aimed over long distances to disable or destroy targets. Two types of devices are currently being weaponized: high-energy lasers and radio-frequency weapons, commonly referred to as high-power microwaves. Lasers excite atoms to release photons in powerful bursts of coherent (single-frequency, single-phase) light that can be focused and aimed with mirrors. With sufficient power, lasers can quickly pierce or overheat a wide range of targets, including missiles, aircraft and artillery rounds. Radio-frequency weapons operate in the lower-frequency, longer-wavelength portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to generate bursts or beams capable of disabling electronic systems.
Directed-energy weapons have several advantages over conventional munitions. First, they transmit lethal force at the speed of light (about 300,000 kilometers per second). Second, their beams are not affected by the constraining effects of gravity or atmospheric drag. Third, they are extremely precise. Fourth, their effects can be tailored by varying the type and intensity of energy delivered against targets. Fifth, they have deep magazines and relatively low cost per shot. Finally, they are versatile in that they can be used both as sensing devices and kill mechanisms. However, directed-energy weapons also have drawbacks: laser beams are weakened by water vapor, dust and other obscurants, while radio-frequency emissions can be absorbed by any conductive material between the weapon and the target.
Directed-energy weapons are properly viewed as one facet of a broader “Revolution in Military Affairs” currently unfolding in the United States and elsewhere. Just as digital technology is greatly increasing the pace and precision of military information flows, so directed-energy weapons can enhance the speed and discrimination with which targets are engaged. Systems such as the Airborne Laser and various tactical lasers are potentially applicable to ballistic- missile defense, defense against air-breathing threats (manned and unmanned), suppression of enemy air defenses, interdiction of ground vehicles, and many other military missions. Radio-frequency weapons facilitate a wide range of information operations against both area and point targets. Over the longer run, directed-energy weapons may enable entirely new concepts of operation, such as “nonlethal” warfare.
Because directed-energy weapons are so new, there are few legal constraints on their development or use. However, without careful management and adequate resources, the warfighting potential of directed-energy technology may never be fully realized. The study recommends several steps to assure sufficient funding and focus, including creation of a joint program office and increased spending on basic research. It also recommends near-term emphasis on demonstrating the efficacy of first-generation directed-energy systems in realistic tests, exploration of a wider range of operational missions, and greater attention to potential countermeasures.
The principal investigator for this study was Dr. Loren Thompson. The study was written by Dr. Thompson and Dr. Daniel Goure of the Lexington Institute staff. All of the key participants in the research team’s deliberations were given an opportunity to review the study prior to publication.
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