Directed Energy Weapons: Realigning the Asymmetry of Warfare?

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Every so often new technologies arise that enhance national security and that change the way offensive and defensive strategies are designed in warfare leaving past technologies obsolete or less effective.  The U.S. is unlocking one such game-changing technology: directed energy weaponry.  Much in the way that Will Snider’s article on the use of drone technology influences the calculus used to determine how and when force should be used, directed energy weaponry would likewise change our perception and calculations on the use of force.

Directed energy weaponry (DEW) differs from conventional ballistic weaponry in that it does not rely on projectiles to interact with targets, but rather on the projection of energy directly.  These energies come in the form of particles or waves that move at or near the speed of light, are little affected by gravitational forces, can travel greater distances than their conventional counterparts, and could potentially deliver energies to the target substantially greater than their conventional counterparts.  Although directed energy technology in the form of targeting or range-finding lasers has existed for some time in tandem with ballistic weaponry, only recently has the use of directed energy as a weapon matured into a reality.

It is the unique capabilities of energy weapons that make their potential for the modern battlefield so alluring.  A single energy weapon with a sufficient power source would have negligible recoil, nearly unlimited ammunition and the ability to project energy in beams precise enough to mimic the surgical efficiency of a sniper or the ability to project larger beams capable of eliminating large swaths of enemies based entirely on the configuration of the weapons focus and targeting system.  Some of the systems closest to reaching full integration with our current military include active denial systems that can clear hostile crowds, or even shoot mortars and artillery projectiles out of the sky before reaching their targets.  This is a very attractive option for neutralizing mortar and artillery attacks in urban areas with high civilian concentration.  Other systems are being investigated that would be placed on ships or planes that could prevent cruise missiles from damaging our navy or air force.  Thus, countries that have spent millions in research to find ways of countering the U.S.’s clear naval and carrier force advantages with land based cruise missiles would have spent their time and research in vain.  Additionally laser systems are being researched that would be attached to the roof of vehicles that could burn straight through IEDs on the road.  Many of the strategies and technologies developed by lesser forces to combat the overwhelming capabilities of the U.S. military would lose effectiveness.

Essentially, the asymmetric battlefield could possess significantly less dangers if the directed energy active denial systems could be put into place.  The threats to U.S. personnel and materials of small, inexpensive and mobile platforms would be significantly decreased and the U.S. military’s ability to operate effectively against such forces would increase.  Directed energy weapons represent the possibility of bringing the balance of force in favor of larger, technologically advanced forces – exactly what the U.S. needs.

What the U.S. faces in the coming months and years of developing these technologies will determine how quickly and effectively these systems come into use for the military.  Of the obstacles facing these systems one of the greatest is developing a power source that is small, mobile, and provides sufficient power to make these DEWs  viable for the battlefield.  The development of such miniaturized power generators will be incremental over time.  The first DEWs will likely be static defensive facilities followed by mobile platforms on large naval vessels and airplanes with sufficient space and power for large equipment.  Eventually, the miniaturization process will allow for emplacement on vehicular platforms and finally to individual soldiers.  Regardless, the potential of these weapons has not been overlooked by the military and will certainly make the U.S. much more secure against asymmetrical warfare tactics.

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