Advocates have long argued that directed energy weapons — including high energy lasers, high power microwaves, and other radiofrequency technologies — may carry substantial operational advantages for U.S. forces. None other than Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has called high energy lasers an example of the “fantastic, potentially game changing new technologies that we can more quickly get into the force,” and one candidate for the new “offset” strategy pursued by the Department of Defense. In principle, directed energy weapons can provide offensive and defensive non-kinetic attack options, serve as cost-effective force multipliers, and provide operational flexibility to the warfighter.
In parallel, skeptics point to a lengthy track record of overhyped promises and system underperformance. They note that the large-scale, high-profile developments of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s — programs such as the airborne, ground-based, or space-based lasers — were not only costly but ultimately failed to transition into the U.S. arsenal. They often argue that technically credible, operationally usable, and policy friendly directed energy weapons have been more the province of science fiction than reality.
Today, we are at an inflection point. The Defense Department has over the past few years made tangible technical progress in key areas. Among other things, the Navy has successfully demonstrated a 33 kilowatt high energy laser system prototype, and the Air Force an airborne cruise missile with a high power microwave payload. Another operational capability, the Active Denial System, was deployed to Afghanistan but withdrawn prior to use. Related technologies, such as the lower-power Directed Infrared Countermeasures systems configured for some large military aircraft, have been available for some time.
There is substantial and growing evidence that directed energy technologies are finally coming of age for battlefield use. This stands in stark contrast to the aspirational, large-scale developments of decades past. The Department of Defense has shown that it has both a continued interest in directed energy and the ability to successfully develop operational systems for identified military end-uses. Indeed, some technologies have finally demonstrated sufficient technical maturity that they may be integrated into naval, air, and ground force structure for varied applications within the next decade. In this capacity, they may be called on to support operations in anti-access/area-denial environments, for homeland defense purposes, for counterinsurgency, or other defense missions.
But they are not yet the “game-changers” they could ultimately become. For directed energy weapons to become credible offset candidates, the Defense Department must ramp-up the investments necessary to capitalize on their continuing promise. The department allocated an estimated $405 million in fiscal year 2014 for directed energy weapons, and $371 million this year. Adjusted for inflation, this is down more than 8 percent year over year, down 71 percent from 2006, and down 84 percent from peak spending in the twilight of the Cold War.
There is a growing disconnect between the technical art-of-the-possible and the department’s investment posture. In 2012, for example, the Air Force conducted what Major General Thomas Masiello, Air Force Research Laboratory commander, called “highly, highly successful” tests of CHAMP — the high power microwave cruise missile. Congress subsequently provided resources for the Air Force to produce by 2016 an operational system designed for counter-electronic mission applications. Yet, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh recently testified that his Service instead intends to produce a “cross-function study” that could eventually lead to a “family of electromagnetic weapons.” While the Air Force is to be commended both for its forward-thinking and for its technical accomplishments, there is obviously a considerable gap between a fielded system and yet another study. For Representative Richard Nugent (R-FL), this does not comport with Congressional intent and is insufficient to meet the identified needs of Combatant commanders; it is “not a limitation on technology, authorities, or funding.”
This disconnect is not limited to a single military department, to a specific type of technology, or to any particular system. Despite real and noteworthy technical progress, the Defense Department has not yet successfully integrated any such weapons into the U.S. force posture. While certain developments appear promising, there is no publicly articulated plan that aligns scarce developmental resources with priority missions — let alone identified specific timeframes to field priority systems. Each military department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense is a stakeholder in the ultimate success of highly capable and cost-effective directed energy weapons; and each remains engaged in relevant research and development. As it stands, however, this area is a technological orphan — influenced by many, yet owned by none.
While there is clear merit in competitive, concurrent developments, the modest resources in play are arguably not sufficient to effectively underwrite the many air, sea, and ground-based developments currently underway. To increase the prospects that it will be able to successfully field a comparatively small set of systems within the next several years, the Department of Defense must either allocate additional resources or make some hard programmatic choices. For instance, while tactical needs may vary, it is not intuitive why the Marine Corps and Army maintain separate ground-based high energy laser programs. And it is possible that related activities, such as key Air Force, DARPA, and/or Missile Defense Agency-sponsored solid-state and combined-fiber laser undertakings, could be re-packaged for at least some ground-based mission applications. Similarly, the Department of Defense may be able to benefit from relevant developments in the U.S. industrial base or from companies in Israel, Germany, and other allied or friendly states. But absent a strong and sustained demand signal, U.S. innovation in this area will lag, products will likely take longer to deliver and cost more for lesser performance than desired, and U.S. forces could ultimately find themselves at battlefield or strategic disadvantage.
However the Defense Department ultimately chooses to allocate scarce resources in this area, it must also carefully manage performance expectations. The set of systems currently being developed are best-suited for defensive and short-range mission applications. Modern high power microwave weapons can play an important counter-electronics role, but they do not yet carry a high probability of effect at standoff distances. Modern high energy laser weapons have become more operationally usable than the large-scale programs of a decade or two ago, but operate at comparatively lower power levels. They are not the multi-hundred kilowatt to megawatt-class systems required, for example, to credibly hold fast-moving ballistic missiles at risk or to provide effective wide-area battlegroup defense. But because they are capable of performing important counter-unmanned aerial vehicle, counter-boat, aircraft self-protection, combat identification, and potentially other roles, the operational community understandably is awakening once again to the promise of directed energy.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified recently that key states are pursuing “comprehensive military modernization programs” and seeking to “develop technologies designed to blunt our military’s traditional advantages.” Against a backdrop of growing foreign capabilities and continuing resource constraints, the Department of Defense is putting in place a Long-Range Research and Development Planning Program that seeks to identify and cultivate “high-payoff” technology investments to enable a modern-era offset strategy. In this context, the department should consider a significant and sustained increase to its directed energy investments for the peer and near-peer security challenges envisioned. Such weapons are not a panacea, but have an important role to play in the future U.S. force posture. Their prospective payoff is such that these technologies warrant active and sustained senior leader focus.
This is a material concern for the fiscal year 2016 budget deliberations. If the Department of Defense wants to field substantially more capable — potentially even game-changing — systems a decade hence, it will need to aggressively pursue such technologies now. It is time to chart a new course forward for directed energy weapons in a context of contemporary fiscal constraints, emerging defense priorities, nascent technology opportunities, and a changing international security landscape.
Dr. Jason Ellis is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), on leave from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He is the author, most recently, of the new CNAS report, Directed-Energy Weapons: Promise and Prospects. The views expressed here are the author’s own and may not reflect those of Lawrence Livermore, the National Nuclear Security Administration, or any other U.S. government agency. CNAS does not take institutional positions.