EMERGING TECHNOLOGY HORIZONS EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
Securing Directed Energy Weapon Supply Chains
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Directed energy weapons have emerged as potentially transformative technology on the modern battlefield.
Recent advancements have made high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves more capable than ever, with many systems possessing the power and range necessary to engage a wide variety of threats more affordably than current systems.
At the same time, the current conflicts in Ukraine and Israel have shown the importance of affordable munitions capacity and the need to counter different kinetic threats, specifically the proliferation of armed unmanned aerial systems.
Given their tremendous potential, the Defense Department should work to transition these weapons from the laboratory into the hands of warfighters. However, a critical component to doing so is ensuring secure, healthy and resilient supply chains to support their deployment at scale.
As such, the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies Institute undertook a study to assess the state of directed energy weapon supply chains and provide policy recommendations for their development, health and resilience. The final report was published Jan. 23.
The study concluded that current directed energy weapon supply chains, including critical raw materials, the manufacturing base and workforce, and testing infrastructure are incapable of supporting the technology’s deployment at scale. Current supply chains are only able to produce small quantities of systems with long lead times.
While addressing supply chain vulnerabilities is a formidable task, it is not insurmountable. A series of concrete steps by government, industry and academia is necessary to fortify these supply chains and fulfill the potential of these cutting-edge technologies.
The most important step the Pentagon can take to secure directed energy weapon supply chains for the future is to clearly articulate their strategic goals, transition appropriate weapon systems to programs of record and use multi-year contracts to send an extended demand signal. Without a clear and sustained demand signal from the military — and therefore a return on investment — industry is hesitant to make the investments necessary to have secure, healthy and resilient directed energy supply chains.
Current supply chains have several vulnerabilities when it comes to critical raw materials and goods, notably the supply of germanium, gallium and rare earth elements — all of which are largely dominated by China.
To address these vulnerabilities, the report outlines several recommendations, including adding gallium to the National Defense Stockpile, developing domestic gallium nitride production capabilities and Defense Department investment in synthetic alternatives to the most vulnerable materials needed for the technology.
As noted earlier, the current directed energy manufacturing base can only produce small numbers of systems with long lead times. Efforts to scale up production would quickly encounter issues, including producing optical components, beam directors, batteries and the regulatory regime governing above-the-horizon testing.
Key recommendations to address these issues include establishing directed energy programs of record that provide clarity on future demand, standardizing and defining requirements for the systems, components and testing and harnessing commercial technology whenever possible.
The current directed energy workforce is insufficient to support scaling up production. Interviewees highlighted optical coatings, high-power optics and energy production and storage as three specific areas facing the greatest shortages. As such, the department should expand existing workforce development efforts by establishing a Directed Energy University Consortium with the specific goal of creating a strong workforce to meet future needs.
The directed energy supply chains face several key security issues and vulnerabilities. While the overall financial health of directed energy companies is relatively stable, the failure of even a single company could have severe repercussions. Limited suppliers exist throughout the supply chains but especially in beam directors, adaptive optics, optical coatings, specialty optical fibers, beam dumps, ceramic laser materials and fused silica.
To mitigate these risks, the Defense Department should consider using artificial intelligence to anticipate potential supply chain failure points, the development and prioritization of overlapping components for directed energy weapon systems between different programs and conducting regular, in-depth analysis of the financial stability and security risks of companies involved in the supply chain.
International partnerships and allied nearshoring present potential avenues for diversifying directed energy critical material sources and enhancing testing capabilities. However, barriers including overclassification and restrictive export controls often impede international collaboration.
As such, Pentagon leaders should designate the Joint Directed Energy Transition Office as the office of primary responsibility for international collaboration on the technology. At the same time, the Defense Department should work with Australia — which has existing directed energy testing infrastructure — to help increase U.S. testing capabilities.
Finally, given Israel’s Iron Beam program, the United States should work with the Israeli Ministry of Defense to identify opportunities where the two nations can combine demand for key directed energy subsystems and components, while ensuring security measures to protect sensitive information.
If implemented, the recommendations in this report could help enhance the resilience, health and security of directed energy supply chains in the years to come. Directed energy weapons have long been considered the “weapon of tomorrow” and will remain so unless action begins today. ND
Mark Neice is the director emeritus of the Directed Energy Professional Society. Rebecca Wostenberg is a research fellow at NDIA’s Emerging Technologies Institute.