Q: What type of application is directed energy well suited to?
A: As people are more familiar with electronic warfare (EW), let’s start with the relationship between directed energy and electronic warfare. The EW community has been very successful in using electromagnetic (EM) energy to deceive, deny or degrade enemy sensors and weapon systems, via the manipulation of known EM coupling paths (mechanisms for reaching the target) into the targeted systems.
While this has proven effective, there are many warfighting applications where EW can’t adequately address the threats that our warfighters see now and will see in the future. And this is where directed energy comes into the mix, expanding the range over conventional electronic warfare.
The effectiveness of directed energy weapons is typically much less dependent on the target having a radio frequency (RF) or optical coupling path into the system that can be manipulated (as is the case for conventional EW systems). HPMs and HELs have stimulated a lot of interest over recent years.
They also result in particularly low engagement costs once directed energy weapons are deployed, despite fairly high development and installation costs, making the cost exchange ratio very low. This means the cost to defeat a target with directed energy is far less than the cost of the target itself.
HPM weapons are distinct from traditional electronic warfare systems on several counts. For instance, their effects last after the exposure has ended, and they can affect a target even when enemy systems are off, unlike EW systems. Also, instead of just having front door coupling features (in which DE interferes with a signal into a system), microwave weapons also damage or degrade their targets’ performance through back door coupling paths (which bypass the antenna and attack the electronics directly), where it can be challenging to defend. Unlike lasers, HPM beams spread out, meaning you can simultaneously engage multiple drones within a swarm, as opposed to a laser having to focus on one target and then move onto the next.
In principle, all electronic devices can be disrupted or damaged by microwave energy; the key is if a sufficient power density can be placed on a target to create those effects at operationally useful ranges, and with an HPM weapon that could realistically be fielded. So, careful investigations are required to be able to predict the outcome of the RF energy on the target.
HELs have a more straightforward effect on targets. The movie industry and science fiction writers have put lasers into the hands of warfighters for many decades. Most HEL systems deployed today can have a similar effect to a blowtorch on a particular part of the target. Careful lethality investigations determine the laser aimpoint, and the amount of deposited energy required to achieve the desired outcome.
Unlike what you see in movies, this process takes time, it’s not instantaneous. While atmospheric effects don’t negatively impact HPM propagation in a significant way at typical HPM engagement ranges, weather must be carefully considered when determining the operational effectiveness of a high-energy laser system. Common uses of HEL weapons on the battlefield include countering crewed and unmanned air systems, rockets, artillery, and mortars.
DEWs have a distinct advantage during ‘grey zone’ campaigning, the area of conflict below the level of overt violence and war. One element of this is to rely on proxy and paramilitary forces, allowing governments to plausibly deny aggression. DEWs, in coordination with clear strategic messaging, can deliver precision attacks with scalable effects across a broad range of targets, and can sow confusion through attributable and non-attributable effects.
The proportional, scalable aspects of DEWs, in particular, offer the additional advantage of undermining escalatory rhetoric: if there’s minimal damage to a ship without a loss of life, it makes it much more difficult to generate public outrage. That would not be the case for a kinetic weapon.
Q: What are a couple of the biggest and most exciting changes that are going to happen in the DE area?
A: Fielding directed energy capabilities is obviously going to be a sea change development.
The most exciting thing I see happening in directed energy would be what I call ‘convergence’. It’s the reason I believe you are seeing the increased activity around fielding directed energy capabilities today. First, investigations into directed energy’s lethality against current and emerging threats shows that they can be effective, and in some cases, more effective than conventional weapons. They deliver energy to a target with precision at the speed of light - even potentially defeating very high speed threats, like hypersonic missiles.
And second, the directed energy community has reduced the size, weight, power, and cooling, (so called ‘SWaP-C’) of weapon systems, so they can be successfully integrated into operational platforms. Directed energy also lends itself well to an agile development approach, which could be more quickly fielded. Later, the power (and hence the range and effectiveness) can be increased over time as part of an iterative process.
That said, this all requires increases in annual funding for directed energy research and development, the expansion of the industrial base, and the enhancement of the supply chain to deliver the required systems and subsystems - because some of them are unique to directed energy.
Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) capabilities will start working their way into the fire-control solutions for directed energy and other weapons. The threats our warfighters will face (and very short decision times) will exceed their capacity to do the necessary weapontarget pairing in time. AI/ML will assist them in that decision process, while still keeping the human “in the loop” overseeing the process.
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David answers the biggest challenges facing the directed energy community alongside whether there is enough focus on defensive and well as offensive tactics and if we, as the five-eyes doing enough to protect our military capability from exposure.