What is the future of Directed Energy Weapons
From Captain Picard's iconic phaser to the Death Star's planet-destroying laser, science fiction has long been fascinated with directed energy weapons. While these fictional examples are often far-fetched, the reality of directed energy weapons is rapidly catching up.
Some experts believe they will become more prevalent in military arsenals, while others think different technologies may eventually replace them. So what's the verdict? Today, we take a look at the pros and cons of directed energy weapons and try to figure out where they're headed.
What are Directed Energy Weapons?
Directed energy weapons (DEWs) are weapons that emit energy in an aimed direction without the means of a projectile. They can be lethal and non-lethal and work by either damaging or incapacitating targets. These targets can be equipment, vehicles, or people.
DEWs are often distinguished from other weapons because they instantaneously transfer energy to their target rather than relying on kinetic force (like a bullet). This makes them very versatile, as they can be used for a wide range of purposes. These futuristic weapons come in many forms, but all share the same basic principle: they focus energy on a target to achieve the desired effect. That can be done through various means, such:
High Energy Lasers (HELs)
HELs are perhaps the most well-known type of DEW. They work by firing a concentrated beam of optical radiation(light) at a target. The amount of energy in the beam determines its effect on the target. For example, a lower-powered laser might be used for dazzle (temporarily blinding an opponent), while a more powerful one could be used for destruction (damaging or destroying equipment). The 300 kW-class IFPC-HEL prototypes being developed by the U.S. Army are an impressive example of the destructive power of lasers.
One of the benefits of HELs is that they can be very precise. This makes them ideal for targeting specific equipment or vehicles without harming nearby personnel.
High Energy Radio Frequency Weapons (HERF)
HELs are nothing new - they've been used in military applications for decades. However, technology is constantly evolving, and HELs are becoming increasingly powerful. One of the benefits of HELs is that they can be very precise. This makes them ideal for targeting specific equipment or vehicles without harming nearby personnel. Additionally, HELs can fire at very high speeds, making them difficult to defend against.
HERF weapons emit high-powered radio waves to damage or destroy electronic equipment. They work by overloading and frying the circuits of their target. HERF weapons are often used for disabling enemy vehicles, as well as for disrupting communications. Also called microwave weapons, they can be very effective against targets sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. Understandably, these weapons are still difficult to control and can cause collateral damage if not used properly.
The U.S currently has a Tactical High-power Operational Responder (THOR) system, which is a HERF weapon designed for crowd control. The system is used to knock drones out of the sky and can also be used to disrupt communications.
Particle Beam Weapons (PBW)
PBW weapons fire a stream of subatomic particles at a target with the goal of damaging or destroying it. These particles can be either charged or neutral and are usually accelerated to very high speeds using magnets. PBW weapons are often compared to lasers, as they share some similarities (such as the fact that they are both electromagnetic weapons).
The particles in a PBW can be much more tightly focused, making them more effective at long range.
However, PBWs have a number of advantages over lasers. For one, the particles in a PBW can be much more tightly focused, making them more effective at long range. We can include weapons like the plasma weapon in this category, which fires a stream of superheated plasma (a gas that has been ionized).
Directed energy weapons can also be used for non-lethal purposes, such as crowd control or incapacitating targets, without causing permanent damage. This subclass of DEWs typically uses lower energy levels and is designed to cause temporary pain or disability. One example of a non-lethal DEW is the active denial system (ADS), which uses millimeter waves to heat up a target's skin, causing intense pain. While non-lethal DEWs are less harmful than their lethal counterparts, they can still pose a risk to human health if misused.
What are Directed Energy Weapons?
We are well into the development of DEW technology. In fact, many different types of DEWs are already used by militaries worldwide. The U.S military developed the megawatt-class Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) in the early 2000s. This system was designed to be mounted on a Boeing 747 and could target missiles up to several hundred kilometers away. While the ALTB was never used in combat, it did prove its worth by shooting down two missiles in 2010.
As other countries join the race to develop DEW technology, we expect even more progress in the coming years. The Chinese military, for example, currently possesses ground-based DEWs. Although, like most other militaries, they are tight-lipped about the specifics of their systems.
Since space is a vacuum, traditional ballistic weapons are not very effective there. This leaves DEWs as one of the only options for militaries who wish to target enemy spacecraft.
However, the Secure World Foundation recently published a report which details some of China's DEW developments. As the People's Liberation Army prepares to enter orbit, it seems they are preparing to use their DEWs to target satellites. Since space is a vacuum, traditional ballistic weapons are not very effective there. This leaves DEWs as one of the only options for militaries who wish to target enemy spacecraft.
In the U.S, a panel of experts from the Air Force gathered to discuss the future of these weapons. The panel forecasted that by 2060, they will have force fields, portable EMP weapons, and the aforementioned lasers ready for action. And back in the UK, the Laser Directed Energy Program (LDEW) led by MBDA, has successfully begun a series of trials of its Dragonfire LDEW to prove the accuracy and power of the novel laser weapon. This trial used a low power QinetiQ laser, Leonardo’s beam director, and MBDA’s Image Processing and Control technology to facilitate the ultra-precise “fine” pointing and tracking accuracy, which will be required to generate the damage effect when a high-powered laser will be used.
What effect will DEWs have on modern warfare?
The future of warfare will be greatly affected by the development of DEWs. These are weapons that are unaffected by the likes of gravity, wind, or weather, making them highly accurate. With the ability to target enemy vehicles, aircraft, and even satellites, DEWs give militaries a great deal of flexibility. In the future, DEWs could play a significant role in both offensive and defensive operations.
When it comes to ammunition, DEWs have the potential to be much more cost effective than traditional weapons.
When it comes to ammunition, DEWs have the potential to be much more cost effective than traditional weapons. No need for millions of bullets or missiles when a few hundred watts of power can do the job just as well. This will help militaries to save on costs, potentially freeing up money to be spent on other areas.
The question remains: Will we be able to use these powerful weapons without causing unintended collateral damage? As we saw with the atomic bomb, napalm, and white phosphorus, new technologies often come with a learning curve. In most cases, international treaties quickly ban these technologies once their destructive capabilities become clear. In fact, lasers that cause permanent blindness are already prohibited by the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons. As we enter the era of directed energy weapons, it will be up to the world's militaries to set the rules for their use.
Though the exact future of directed energy weapons (DEW) is challenging to predict, these powerful tools have several potential applications. From missile defense to crowd control, DEWs have the potential to play a significant role in the security of nations and individuals alike. With continued research and development, DEWs will likely only become more sophisticated and versatile in the future.