Weight, Size Issues Stymie Fielding of Directed Energy Weapons (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson

The Defense Department’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate has developed a beam of energy that can force an enemy combatant to leave an area without causing him any wounds.

Another device can stop a vehicle dead in its tracks without so much as a nick on the body paint. When the beam is turned off, the driver can restart the engine and continue on without any damage to the motor or electrical system.

These technologies work, and the legal, ethical and treaty issues have been resolved. But there are familiar problems preventing them from reaching troops: size, weight, power and price.

Currently, if soldiers or Marines want to bring these directed energy, non-lethal weapons into a battle zone, they will need an entire truck to haul one system there.

And that’s not good enough, said David Law, technology division chief at the joint program.

“How do we make these things more operationally useful and get them into a form factor that will be acceptable to the war fighter?” he asked.

The directorate wants to take these technologies off the test ranges and into the field. It recently held an industry day at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., in preparation for a raft of requests for proposals that will be released in 2013. Program managers outlined several items on their wish list that they hope will take the technology to the next level. In the immediate future, they just want to shrink what the program already has down to where the devices are part of a truck instead of the whole truck.

The beam that forces a subject to quickly vacate an area is called active denial. It uses millimeter waves to heat the first layer of skin from stand-off distances. The sensation is so overwhelming that even the toughest Marine volunteers hit with its energy bolt away. The technology has been in development since the 1990s, and as early as 2005 at the height of the Iraq conflict, engineers had mounted a system on the back of a Humvee.

That was seven years ago, and it still takes a tactical wheeled vehicle to carry the system and provide its power.

“Everyone wants to repel, deny or move people,” Law said. “With this technology, you can do all three of those things.” But the potential users are asking, “Can you make it cheap enough for us? Can you make it small enough for us?”

For military thinkers, the promise of directed energy is clear, especially when applied to non-lethal applications.

Marine Corps Col. Tracy Tafolla, director of the program, played a video of a human shield scenario. The combatant keeping watch over the civilians when hit with the energy beam quickly moved away. The system is precise enough to single out the adversary and not affect the hostages. Once the insurgent is moved away from the group, lethal force could be applied without risking the lives of the noncombatants.

In this case, there is nothing humanitarian about non-lethal technology. It is intended to complement bullets and bombs, not replace them, Tafolla noted.

Active denial could also be used for crowd control, building clearance or perimeter defense. And there are situations where its operators may want to capture rather than kill a subject so they can be interrogated later for intelligence, he said.

The vehicle-stopping program showed a driver’s car coming to a halt. He continued to try to turn over the engine, but it wouldn’t start. Once the energy beam was turned off, the ignition worked.

Vehicle checkpoint security is the obvious application, officials said. During the Iraqi insurgency, bomb-laden cars and trucks caused death and destruction throughout the nation. Accidents occurred and innocent civilians were killed when nervous soldiers fired on cars that wouldn’t stop when commanded. Halting a car — benign or not — at stand-off distances could save lives.

Applying the technology to the maritime environment, the Navy could shut down the engines of pirate boats, or the Coast Guard could do the same to drug runners from either a helicopter or unmanned aerial vehicle.

Ships at anchor in ports could halt boats carrying improvised explosive devices such as the one that struck the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

On a larger scale, directed energy could be used instead of a bombing campaign to take down critical infrastructure that enemy armies rely upon. The landscapes in Iraq and Yugoslavia are littered with examples. The Bagdad Tower was a critical communications node that coalition forces destroyed in order to cut off Saddam Hussein’s ability to transmit messages. Blowing it up took seconds. But it also wasn’t available for coalition forces or the Iraqi government after the aerial campaign ended. Rebuilding it cost U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars and took five years.

“We break it. We buy it,” Taffola said. The radio-frequency high-power program is looking at ways to knock out electronics without causing permanent damage.

The heart of non-lethal technology is that its effects are reversible, he added.

Think small, not big, he urged attendees at the industry day.

The now-terminated airborne laser program, designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, was so large it had to be transported on a Boeing 747. That directed energy program never came to fruition, although it did successfully shoot down missiles in tests.

But one of the directed energy field’s biggest successes came in the form of the rifle-mounted green laser dazzlers that were used to solve the vehicle checkpoint problem in Iraq. They flash green light in the eyes of drivers in order to grab their undivided attention. Law said he was involved in early efforts to field red laser dazzlers during the conflict in Kosovo where NATO troops were being fired on by boy snipers. The idea was to light them up so they knew that they had been spotted. The child-soldiers would then retreat. But the legal and treaty concerns at the time were given more weight than the military needs.

By the time Iraq came around, and the accidental deaths at checkpoints were piling up, the military utility trumped all the legal and ethical concerns, he said.

There are now some 16,000 green laser dazzlers fielded.  

“We are heavily invested in directed energy,” said Taffola. The overall Non-Lethal Weapons Program budget totaled $138 million in fiscal year 2011 and has grown to an estimated $150 million this year, which includes funding chipped in by the services. That doesn’t include the amount of money the services spend on procuring non-lethal technology. That pot approaches $800 million to $1 billion over the next six years, but includes many non-directed energy devices — everything from flash grenades to stun guns, he said.     

There is a high amount of interest on Capitol Hill in directed energy, he said.

“If we are able to achieve success, we will get reinforced” with higher budgets, he asserted.

It is doubtful, if the timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan holds, that active denial will make it into the current conflict, Law and Taffola both said in interviews.

“We’re not trying to look for one specific theater, and we think non-lethal has a place across the spectrum of military operations,” Taffola told National Defense.

Active denial was never deployed in Iraq, and was sent over to Afghanistan once two years ago. The unit that took possession of the system had the green light to use it in a battle zone, but never had the opportunity, Law said.

“It was kind of had bad timing. There were all sorts of other things going on,” he said.
There are ongoing discussions to send it into the field again, but for now, the directorate knows that it will not be acceptable in its current configuration.

“The bottom line is the war fighters see that capability and they want that capability to repel, deny movement and suppress people. The issue is, can we get it into some sort of a form factor that is acceptable?” Law said.

Taffola faced harsh questions from a potential vendor at the industry day who was skeptical that the directorate would ever be able to find buyers in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force and Special Operations Command for these directed energy weapons. There are no hard requirements for them, and no strong advocate among the services, he said.

“Is there a back end to this?” he asked,

Taffola said it falls under the realm of science and technology, where hard and fast requirements aren’t yet necessary. Yes, there is a risk for industry, he said and added that “there is no guarantee that you’re … going to cross that valley of death,” referring to the term for technologies that never transition from laboratories to the field.

Nevertheless, if the program can show data that demonstrates that it can lower the weight, size, power consumption and price of directed energy, the services will buy in, he said.

Law said shrinking the systems down is all within “the art of the possible.” If the active denial system power demand can be lowered from 100 kilowatts to 30 kilowatts, then it could easily fit into one rack on a Humvee.

The directorate will be releasing requests for proposals next year to advance the technology further. Currently, active denial can shoot only one beam. It wants the ability to fire multiple beams at several targets simultaneously. It also needs to shrink the size of the dish.

The vehicle stopping technology can also be placed on a road like a mat. When a car drives over, it kills the engine. Technologists at the directorate want to make the “pre-employed electric vehicle stopper” smaller and lower cost.

There will also be requests seeking ways to extend the ranges of the laser dazzlers, and the active denial system. They should ideally travel the same distances as small arms fire.

Laser-induced plasmas are another interesting field. This uses directed energy, combined with elements found in the air, to create a bubble of energy “that can produce a number of interesting non-lethal effects,” said Law.

The directorate also expects to issue requests for proposals for how to convert the vehicle stopping technology into boat stopping devices, and to place the payload on an unmanned aerial vehicle for counter-piracy missions.                

Story originally stated that milimeter waves heat the skin to first few centimeters. It reaches 1/64th of an inch. Estimated nonlethal budget is $800 million to $1 billion over six years, not one year.

Topics: Land Forces

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