Directed Energy Weapons: Will They Ever Be Ready?

By Ariel Robinson
If Nikola Tesla had been deployed with the USS Ponce this past year, he would have been proud. A directed energy weapon — similar, in some ways, to his own 1934 invention “Teleforce” — was proved to be operationally effective on board a Navy ship for the first time.

The trials of the Navy’s laser weapon system (LaWS) were hailed as a success. But despite promising test results and decades of research and development, it could be many more years before the military is ready to bring directed energy weapons into the mainstream.

The Defense Department defines directed energy as a “weapon or system that uses directed energy to incapacitate, damage or destroy enemy equipment, facilities and/or personnel.” They require power levels of around 50 kilowatts or higher. To destroy anti-ship cruise missiles would require a beam of 500 kilowatts and demand megawatts of power.

There are two types: high-powered microwaves and high-energy lasers. High-powered microwaves emit electrically-powered pulses of microwave radiation at a wide angle, while high-energy lasers direct highly focused beams of lower-powered energy using one of two lasing mechanisms: chemical fuel or electric power.

Chemical lasers are the only systems that have produced megawatt-level outputs. However, they are fueled by a toxic cocktail of chemicals which require special handling, and have generally fallen out of favor in the United States. Another reason is that they rely on what is essentially an external/independent power source, and thus lack the key strategic value of directed energy weapons: a virtually unlimited magazine.

Solid state lasers are electrically powered, and they are separated into three types: Fiber solid-state lasers like LaWS, slab solid-state lasers, and free electron lasers. While they avoid the complicated logistics associated with chemical lasers, SSLs are generally not very efficient. In most cases, two-thirds to three-quarters of the energy required to operate them is dissipated as heat, which poses a challenge to most platforms’ cooling capacities.

Reaching this point has taken nearly half a century, billions of dollars and a number of canceled programs. Observers have been skeptical of frequent claims that we are “just a few years away” from achieving an operationally effective and “manufacturable” directed energy weapon.

When asked what makes this time any different, most experts agree with David DeCroix, a congressional fellow on the House Committee on Homeland Security. In the early 1990s, while at Rockwell International, DeCroix worked on the Defense Department’s airborne laser. One of the biggest differences between then and now, he said, is the access to computing power. “A desktop computer or small rack of high performance computing clusters makes the scientific and technical questions more tractable because you can [address] them with modeling and simulation.”

That, and laser technology has advanced significantly in the commercial sector, said Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The Navy was able to take advantage of the technological development in the commercial world, where lasers have been used for welding and cutting for 20 years now, and translate that over to the military.”

With the support of Navy leadership, the technology has been demonstrated in an operational environment. In August 2014, a prototype of the Navy’s 33 kilowatt LaWS was installed on the USS Ponce. In December, crewmen used it to successfully shoot down a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle and target high-speed small boats.

“To industry, that’s a really important event,” said Steve Hixson, vice president for directed energy at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. It shows that the military is solving technology employment problems that are “a barrier for shipboard lasers — or for lasers [in general] — to be deployed, period,” he said in an interview. There are still policy and employment questions “only the government can solve.” If anything, he said, the Ponce demonstration shows the science and technology issues are solved.

According to Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, there are no show stoppers. “I can assure you that we’ve got all the resources positioned in the Navy and Marine Corps to put us in a good place when this test is done,” he told Congress last year when he was chief of naval research.

But many experts disagree. “There are still issues with respect to getting the power, getting that much energy density on target,” DeCroix told National Defense, “as well as challenges to focusing the laser.” Only Aegis cruisers and destroyers and San Antonio-class amphibious ships have enough power under battle conditions to support LaWS. The Navy would have to redesign its Flight III DDG-51 destroyers, for example, to make room not only for the laser, but also for the additional power generating and cooling equipment to support high-powered solid-state lasers with outputs powerful enough to destroy anti-ship cruise missiles. The free electron laser is too large to fit on even a lengthened Flight III DDG-51. Congressional Research Service analyst Ronald O’Rourke wrote that carriers and LHA/LHD-type amphibious ships may have enough room for a megawatt free-electron laser, but current designs could not support its energy and cooling requirements.

The beam quality needed for these weapons is more than 10 times the quality of industrial lasers because their targets are farther away. Atmospheric conditions, too, can negatively affect a weapon’s ability to lock on, track and destroy its target. This doesn’t mean a laser won’t work in the rain. And there are techniques to cope with salt and sea spray.

As Hixson noted, these are some of the technology questions that the defense industry can solve. In fact, they already are. Northrop Grumman’s first generation beam control technology was developed 20 years ago. The company is now working on the third generation.

One obstacle for directed energy weapons is overcoming the perception that they are destined to fail. In the late 2000s, after more than a decade of development and billions of dollars spent, the airborne laser and the space-based laser were canceled. In a recent report for the Center for New American Security, Jason Ellis noted that directed energy programs “appeared to continue an empirical record that, according to informed observers, is grounded in a ‘history of unfulfilled promises’ and ‘excessive optimism’ for HEL weapons that date back to at least the 1970s.”

Funding is also a challenge. Directed energy weapons “compete with other established modernization programs which have very large constituencies,” analyst Mark Gunzinger of CSBA said in an interview. “This is a huge tension we see inside the Department of Defense where newer, near-term requirements crowd out future modernization programs,” especially those that may be costly up-front but save money in the long run.

Trying to determine exactly how much money the Defense Department has invested in directed energy systems is particularly difficult, as separate agencies bury those expenses in different accounts. Ellis noted that while Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Special Operations Command and some Defense Department accounts are “reasonably straightforward,” the Air Force, Army and Navy are more difficult to estimate.

For fiscal year 2016, some of the Navy’s directed energy research efforts, for example, are included in their budget line item 73, “Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems.” About $9.5 million, out of the $67.3 million, was requested for solid-state lasers. There is an additional $26.9 million in a different section of the budget, under “Power Projection Applied Research.” Other directed energy weapons funding is kept secret under the military’s classified budget.

Outside the military, policy makers and other stakeholders have reservations about the future of directed energy systems. “I don’t think the culture is ready yet,” said Center for Strategic and International Studies Fellow Scott Aughenbaugh. That’s not unusual for revolutionary technologies, he added. It takes decades to go from a physics and material science problem to a viable prototype. 

The next big challenge for directed energy weapons will be crossing the “valley of death,” DeCroix said. “The money spent doing basic and applied research to get you to the prototype phase pales in comparison to the cost to actually operationalize that system.”

LaWS, for example, is ready to enter the valley of death, said CNAS fellow Paul Scharre. “Will it make it through?”

At this point, Ellis noted, “The department neither spends enough to underscore the importance of developments in this area nor otherwise incentivizes industry to spend scarce internal resources for a market that may not exist in the near-term to midterm.” He estimated that it will take two to three times as much funding as is currently allotted for high-energy lasers annually and five to 10 times current high-power microwave funding levels to achieve an operationally viable laser weapon.

“Do I think there’s going to be a DE breakthrough in spite of budgetary realities? The answer is yes,” said Gunzinger, “because what we are doing as a nation today is not going to maintain our advantage.”

Directed energy weapons could become hugely disruptive from a cost standpoint, because they could kill targets for a lot less than traditional missiles and guns. Supporters believe they are among the innovative technologies that will allow the U.S. military to retain its advantage. 

Once installed, solid-state lasers have two distinct benefits over kinetic systems. The estimated cost per shot is between $1 and $20, and — as long as the ship has enough electrical power — the magazine is endless. This is particularly valuable for ships, said Clark, because of their “very small and finite” magazine space.

On a more strategic level, the increased level of persistence that directed energy weapons enable is crucial for the Navy, since one of the primary missions is to deter, Clark said. “To provide that deterrence value, though, you have to have the ability to survive the initial attack.” If a ship’s magazine can be tapped out after defending itself against a swarm of armed unmanned air vehicles or small boats, all an aggressor needs is just a few more missiles than the ship has. While that may be expensive, destroying a $2 billion ship looks like a pretty good cost exchange for the enemy, Clark explained.

“You want to drive the calculus on the adversary’s part to the point where achieving a sure victory becomes very difficult and potentially very expensive,” he added. “As long as the Navy doesn’t pursue higher capacity defensive systems, they increase the risk that someone’s going to eventually build up an ability to overwhelm the defenses of whatever ships we have in that area.”

With the clear advantages of directed energy weapons, it should come as no surprise that the United States is not alone in pursuing the technology. India, Russia, China, Germany and others have all made substantial progress in the development of these systems over the last decade. Details are scarce at the unclassified level. The Russian defense firm Almaz-Antey is considered by many to be one of the world’s leaders in laser technology, and the China Poly Group Corp. recently unveiled a high-power microwave system similar to Raytheon’s active denial system from the mid-2000s. China is also developing a naval-based DE system.

Gunzinger cautioned that United States is nowhere near ready to deploy directed energy weapons. “Have we thought about what DE weapons could do to our operational concept, how we prefer to fight? I would daresay the answer is no. Not enough, clearly not enough. And we need to start thinking about that now. … It’s not just what we can do to develop our own systems, but how we can counter their capabilities.”

The downside of not adopting this technology more aggressively, said Clark, “is that we don’t get religion on the fact that it could be used against us as well. Once we’ve agreed that we are going to use a certain new technology,” he said, “we start thinking how others might have it, and we start actually planning for that, and adapting our systems to account for that. … We tend to not think that anyone else has adopted it, and so it never shows up in our planning priorities.”

It will be tough to break through a culture of resistance, Gunzinger said. “How do you overcome it? Usually — unfortunately — it takes some sort of strategic shock or surprise.”

There are still many unanswered questions, analysts agreed. That is why it will be another 10 years before the Pentagon actually starts to integrate the systems into the platforms, said Clark.

“Figuring out how to jam it into the ship, wire it up, hook the cooling into it and do all the things that need to be done in order for the laser to be useful on the ship or in the airplane. … They should be doing that now. They should be looking to see how to marry these up now, because it’s going to happen. It’s not a theoretical concept anymore.”

Ariel Robinson is a contributing writer.

Topics: Armaments, Defense Department, Science and Engineering Technology

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