EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

JUST IN: Weak Demand Signal Hampering Directed Energy Production

1/23/2024
By Laura Heckmann

NDIA photo-illustration

ARLINGTON, Virginia — Directed energy weapons have emerged as potentially transformative in the new era of great power competition, but a stronger demand signal from the Pentagon is needed to address a vulnerable supply chain, a new report said.

“Directed Energy Weapon Supply Chains: Securing the Path to the Future,” released by the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute Jan. 23, examined both the weapons’ “enormous” economic and tactical benefits as well as an insufficient commitment from the Defense Department to field the weapons at scale.

Directed energy weapons are electromagnetic systems capable of converting chemical energy or electric energy to radiated energy and focusing it on a target, resulting in physical damage that degrades, neutralizes, defeats or destroys an adversarial capability. The report specifically examined high-energy lasers — solid state and fiber — and high-power microwaves.

High-energy lasers convert stored or generated energy into electrical power, with the potential for a large firing capacity, low cost-per-shot and relatively low logistics requirements. They can also fire at the speed of light, allowing for rapid engagement of high-speed targets and an unlimited magazine.

High-power microwaves come in two main varieties: continuous and pulsed wave. Continuous wave microwaves deliver a constant stream of microwave energy in a wide area and are best suited for area denial operations against small electronics like unmanned aerial systems, whereas pulsed wave delivers high-power, short-duration pulses and a high degree of accuracy.

The weapons, which the report branded “more capable than ever,” are poised to play “an increasingly vital role in countering the threats posed by an increasingly belligerent China, Russia and Iran.” But the United States needs to make some adjustments in order to take advantage of them.

The report found that the current directed energy supply chains are only able to produce small quantities of systems with long lead times. Weak and inconsistent demand signals from the Pentagon are leaving industry uncertain about committing to investments necessary for a healthy and resilient supply chain.

Rebecca Wostenberg, the report’s lead author and research fellow with the Emerging Technologies Institute, said, “While addressing these vulnerabilities is a formidable task, it is not insurmountable,” and will require a “series of concrete steps by government, industry and academia.”

Specifically, the report identified six key findings and recommendations — the most urgent being the need for a strong and consistent demand signal from the Defense Department.

“The most important step DoD can take to secure directed energy weapon supply chains for the future is to provide a consistent demand signal to industry to clearly articulate its strategic goals for [directed energy weapons],” the report said.

Clear strategic goals are necessary to push appropriate directed energy weapons systems to transition into programs of record and multi-year contracts “used to send an extended demand signal.” And right now, that’s just not happening, the report said.

But what does a clear demand signal look like from an industry perspective?

Tyler Griffin, strategy and business development director for Lockheed Martin, said continuity and increased budgets would be a start.

“I'd say if we look historically, the laser weapon budget averages $900 million to $1 billion dollars per year that’s spread over academia, industry, federally funded research and development centers. Seeing a change in that would be a start,” he said, speaking during a panel discussion at the report launch Jan. 23.

He added that while the Defense Department publishes annually where money goes years out, “sometimes, year over year, there are changes in which program or which part of the portfolio is receiving that budget.”

John Juell, vice president of operations at Epirus, said a clear demand signal “at a basic level, it’s how many and when? And then we can start doing some math on what does that mean down the chain to make the right decisions?”

The report also identified several vulnerabilities in supply chain critical raw materials and goods, “notably the supply of geranium, gallium and rare earth elements,” all of which are largely controlled by China.

The report recommended gallium be added to the national defense stockpile and steps taken to develop domestic gallium nitride production capabilities.

Further findings included a workforce shortage, security vulnerabilities, inadequate testing infrastructure and the need to utilize allied nearshoring and international partnerships to diversify critical material sources.

Despite the technology’s production and scaling challenges, there is no shortage of programs dedicated to directed energy weapons. The report included three pages listing nearly 30 existing directed energy weapons programs within the Defense Department.

The challenge is bringing them forward, Juell said.

“If you look at every one of the programs that are listed in [pages] 10 to 13, they're [a] really important part of the report,” he said. “What is the transition plan for every one of those?”

Production matters, he said. “We aren't in the business of just creating cool technology. We need to get into the business of creating products that are gonna go solve problems. And we need to do it at scale and at rate,” he said.

“Let's get these programs that are supposed to transition into transition states, get them into production states, get them funded appropriately to reduce risk and then continue the development effort in the areas that need more development funding,” he said.

 

Topics: Energy

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