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Don’t Oversell Directed Energy Weapons

By Ashley Johnson

The point of combined arms warfare is applying an asymmetric approach to put the enemy on the horns of a dilemma: If he counters one capability, he makes himself vulnerable to others. If the Navy only throws rocks, an enemy can anticipate and counter even the best of them. The Navy needs a full array of both traditional and advanced weapons, particularly in an era of renewed great power competition. 

Dr. Michael Griffin, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, recently called for advancing the development of directed energy weapons (DEW) to help the United States maintain a technological edge in the face of potential great power conflict. [1] Dr. Griffin called for DEW applications in the maritime, ground, space and air domains. The Navy has spent years developing both laser weapons and, though not strictly DEW, electromagnetic railguns (EMRG) that use electromagnetic propulsion to increase the range, speed and lethality of ship-launched weapons. The Navy has also developed high-power microwave (HPM) systems, though to date these have only been employed as non-lethal weapons. 

Electronic and electrically-powered capabilities are most vulnerable to DEW. For example, in a non-antipersonnel role (perhaps most likely during initial exchanges), HPM weapons are effective primarily against electronics, including sophisticated targeting and guidance systems, and electrically powered systems and components. Electronics and electrical systems can of course be shielded, but completely shielding operational electronic/electric systems is difficult. 

Lasers can, in theory, burn holes in vehicles, missiles, or artillery shells, but the power and duration required make employment within the atmosphere and at range extremely difficult. Furthermore, burning a hole through an incoming artillery shell, for example, may have no impact other than to slightly reduce its explosive power and shrapnel production. Given precision targeting, lasers are much more effective burning out electro-optics, seekers, and guidance and control electronics. Lasers can also be used against conventional optics (such as telescopic sights and binoculars) that magnify incoming light—temporarily or permanently blinding users. 

Despite nearly a half-century of frustration in DEW development, it appears the United States is finally on the cusp of producing several viable types of DEW. [2] These advanced technology weapons will provide significant advantages and “technological leverage” to our naval and joint forces, and are needed to counter potential adversary DEW. As such, the Navy must continue developming and eventually field DEW, along with other advanced weapons such as railguns and hypervelocity projectiles. 

Yet DEW are not enough, and the Navy must resist deemphasizing traditional chemical energetics-powered weapons. In an initial DEW exchange, both sides might neutralize each other’s most advanced, electrical/electronics-based systems. The outcome then may well depend on who is best with chemical energetics-powered weapons. As Dr. Griffin also pointed out, we should “keep a lot of arrows in our quiver as we go forward.” The principle of combined arms warfare remains the same regardless of the weapons: finding and applying an asymmetric set of capabilities to pit our strength against the adversary’s weakness. Having a complete set of weapons, and the ability to select those appropriate for the task and conditions at hand, will enable our Navy to better pit rocks against scissors, scissors against paper, and paper against rocks.

As recently as two decades ago, the United States still enjoyed substantial advantages in chemical energetics-powered weapons, which gave the Navy the opportunity to focus research and development on advanced laser and EMRG capabilities. But during that time, potential great power adversaries have closed the gap in chemical energetics-powered weapons. Recently, the Navy’s Energetics Warfare Centers at Indian Head and China Lake co-led a project identifying operational capability gaps that require advanced chemical energetics-powered weapons. [3] Their report notes that potential adversaries have in fact closed and, in some cases, surpassed our capabilities. 

This same project also brought together the Navy’s energetics experts to identify how to start overcoming the gaps, and what sort of investments are needed to do so. These experts concluded that even with a decade plus of de-emphasis on conventional energetics research and development, it is not too late to overcome the gaps. Furthermore, the cost is modest compared to other weapons development: a steady-state investment of about $60 million per year, or roughly 3 percent of the Navy’s advanced science and technology weapons development budget, based on a recent Congressional Research Service report. [4]

The Navy needs to develop advanced technologies. It would be folly not to continue developing and fielding DEW against peer or near-peer competitors. But it would be equally foolish to focus  only on DEW when the service can afford to overcome the shortfalls in the range, speed, and lethality of the chemical energetics-powered weapons. If only advanced rocks are brought to the next fight, adversaries that have invested in both DEW rocks and conventional energetics paper may be able to counter our technological advantages. The Navy needs a full complement of advanced and traditional weapons in its quiver to be effective.


[2] Paul Scharre, in  Directed-Energy Weapons: Promise and Prospects , Jason Ellis, April 2015.

[3] Amy J. O’Donnell and Greg D. Wheelock,  The Need for an Energetics Renaissance: A Naval Enterprise Strategy , Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head EOD Technology Division and Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division (China Lake), 31 December 2017.

[4] Ronald O’Rourke,  Navy Lasers, Railgun and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress , Congressional Research Service 7-5700, Report R44175, 8 December, 2017.

Mr. Johnson is Technical Director at Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head EOD Technology Division.



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