Pentagon’s Directed Energy Weapons: From Sci-Fi to Battlefield Reality

The US military’s continuous spending over the past five decades on developing Directed Energy Weapons has started showing results. The acknowledgement by the US Defence Department that the Directed Energy Weapons were used in actual combat has added more credential and momentum to the future development of these weapons….

By Girish Linganna

Opinion

The US military has spent billions over the past 50 years on developing  Directed Energy Weapons (DEW). Now, they are finally being used in combat. Directed Energy Weapons are advanced weapons that use focused energy, like lasers or microwaves, instead of traditional bullets or explosives, to damage or destroy targets.

Doug Bush, the Army’s head of acquisitions, recently told Forbes that the Army has used lasers to shoot down enemy drones in the Middle East. This is the first time the US Defence Department has confirmed using these kinds of weapons in actual combat.

“They’ve been effective in some situations,” Bush said. “Under the right conditions, they work very well against specific threats.”

He didn’t specify which weapons were used, but one of them seems to be a system called P-HEL. It’s built on BlueHalo’s Locust laser, a boxy device mounted on a pallet for defending fixed locations, and it’s controlled using an Xbox gaming controller.The weapon uses a 20-kilowatt laser beam to quickly melt a crucial part of a drone, causing it to fall from the sky within seconds.

  • TheBlueHalo Locust laser is a specific laser weapon system created by the defence company BlueHalo. It’s designed for military applications, typically used to protect fixed locations by targeting and neutralising threats such as drones.
  • AnXbox gaming controller is a handheld device for playing video games on Xbox consoles. It features buttons, triggers, and joysticks that allow players to control game characters and actions on the screen, making it easy to use.

In November 2022, the Army started using the first P-HEL system overseas, and a second unit was deployed this year, according to BlueHalo. CEO Jonathan Moneymaker told Forbes it’s the first “major laser weapon system” to be operationally deployed, but its use in combat had not been confirmed until now.

Directed energy weapons, such as lasers and high-powered microwave systems, use electromagnetic radiation to disable the electric components of their targets and are much cheaper to operate. According to a 2023 GAO report, each shot costs between $1 to $10, which covers the diesel fuel needed to generate their power

Moneymaker said the Locust system has successfully taken down a large number of drones. “It’s not just a few here and there,” he added.

This is a significant achievement for the Pentagon, which is struggling with the high costs of unmanned aerial combat. Often, defending against drones is much more expensive than launching them. US air defence missiles are about twice as expensive as offensive missiles. The cost difference is even greater with the inexpensive drones widely used in the Middle East and the Russia-Ukraine war. In the Red Sea, over the past six months, US warships have used $2 million missiles to destroy $2,000 drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi militants while protecting cargo ships.

Directed energy weapons, such as lasers and high-powered microwave systems, use electromagnetic radiation to disable the electric components of their targets and are much cheaper to operate. According to a 2023 GAO report, each shot costs between $1 to $10, which covers the diesel fuel needed to generate their power.

Laser weapons have another advantage: stealth. The beams are typically invisible and silent. Supporters of a project to test a laser on an Air Force AC-130 gunship highlighted its potential to disable vehicle engines and communication gear without the enemy noticing. However, this program was canceled this spring after years of delays.

The Air Force AC-130 gunship is a heavily armed aircraft used for ground attacks, close air support, and air strikes. It’s equipped with various weapons to target enemy forces. Small drones are easier targets for this new technology compared to missiles and manned planes because they move slowly and fly at low altitudes.

The effectiveness of current laser prototypes is still uncertain. Lasers struggle in conditions like sandstorms, rain, fog, and smoke. Even on clear days, air turbulence can blur and weaken their beams. Additionally, lasers need to stay focused on a target for several seconds, raising doubts about whether one laser can handle a swarm of drones

However, building laser weapon systems is costly. The Army told Forbes that the first P-HEL prototypes cost $8 million (INR 64 Crores) each. Prototypes of a more powerful 50-KW laser system mounted on vehicles, called DE M-SHORAD, have cost $73 million (INR 584 Crores). This is a costly investment, especially considering the many other expensive modernisation programs competing for the Pentagon’s $825 billion budget (INR 6,600,000 Crores).

“It’s really challenging for the Army to afford a directed energy system that’s as expensive as an F-35,” said Bush army  head of acquisitions. He hopes the cost will drop to about a quarter of the average $82.5 million (INR 660 Crores) price tag of the stealth fighter jet.

The effectiveness of current laser prototypes is still uncertain. Lasers struggle in conditions like sandstorms, rain, fog, and smoke. Even on clear days, air turbulence can blur and weaken their beams. Additionally, lasers need to stay focused on a target for several seconds, raising doubts about whether one laser can handle a swarm of drones.

But supporters argue that laser systems for countering drones are still valuable, even if they don’t work in all conditions.

Thomas Karr, the first director of a Pentagon office for directed energy research from 2018 to 2020, points out that bad weather also reduces the effectiveness of the weapons these systems are designed to counter. “A drone won’t fly very well in a sandstorm either,” he told Forbes.

Bush said lasers would be just one part of a multi-layered system to counter drones. This system would also include kinetic interceptors like missiles or RTX’s Coyote kamikaze drone ($120,000 each) and gun-based weapons like C-RAM.

Since 2019, the Navy has equipped eight destroyers with a low-powered laser called ODIN, designed to disrupt the optical or infrared sensors on enemy drones. In 2022, the Navy deployed a 60-KW laser made by Lockheed Martin, called HELIOS, on another destroyer, the Preble, which can destroy drones and outboard motors on small boats

  • The Coyote kamikaze drone is manufactured by Raytheon Technologies (RTX), a major defence contractor based in the United States.
  • C-RAM (Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar) is a defence system designed to detect and destroy incoming rockets, artillery shells, and mortar rounds before they hit their targets.The C-RAM system is manufactured by Northrop Grumman, a major American aerospace and defense company.

He said that even if it saves 10% to 20% of the interceptors we would otherwise need to fire, it’s still a very good return on investment.

Dreams of Star Wars

Since the 1960s, the Pentagon has been fascinated by the potential of directed energy weapons. However, progress was stalled for decades due to overly ambitious projects like the Reagan-era Space Defence Initiative. Mocked as “Star Wars,” the project aimed to create space-based lasers to destroy Soviet ballistic missiles from thousands of miles away. Before its cancellation in 1993, about $30 billion was spent on its development.

Another major failed attempt to destroy ICBMs was the $5 billion Airborne Laser program, promoted as America’s first lightsaber, which ended in 2012. Researchers faced challenges with the size and weight of mounting a powerful laser, which required large containers of hazardous chemicals, on a 747 airplane.

By 2010, research shifted to a more modest goal: targeting smaller threats like artillery shells and slow-moving drones within a few miles.

Karr, the first director of a Pentagon office for directed energy research, said the technology doesn’t need to perform at such a high level. It requires less power and accuracy for smaller targets.

According to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Pentagon has been spending about a billion dollars each year on directed energy research since 2020.

Frank Peterkin, the DoD’s principal director for directed energy, told Forbes that around 20 systems have been deployed with military units for field testing and are available for commanders to use.

The Southern California startup Epirus is about to deliver the last two of four Leonidas system prototypes ordered by the Army under a $66 million contract. The system can create “a wall” of energy hundreds of yards from a base’s perimeter, taking down multiple drones at once. It acts as the last line of defence in a layered air defence system, similar to a “hockey goalie”

This includes four DE M-SHORAD systems, which have an RTX-made laser mounted on a Stryker armoured vehicle. They were sent to Iraq this spring for field testing. One key focus is to see how well the lasers handle the shock and vibration during movement.

Since 2019, the Navy has equipped eight destroyers with a low-powered laser called ODIN, designed to disrupt the optical or infrared sensors on enemy drones. In 2022, the Navy deployed a 60-KW laser made by Lockheed Martin, called HELIOS, on another destroyer, the Preble, which can destroy drones and outboard motors on small boats.

  • ODIN stands for Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy. It is a low-powered laser system designed to disrupt the optical and infrared sensors on enemy drones.
  • HELIOS stands for High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance. It is a 60-kilowatt laser system developed by Lockheed Martin, capable of destroying drones and outboard motors on small boats.

Zapping Targets

High-powered microwave weapons aren’t affected by weather but usually have a shorter range. The Southern California startup Epirus is about to deliver the last two of four Leonidas system prototypes ordered by the Army under a $66 million contract. Epirus CEO Any Lowery told Forbes that the system can create “a wall” of energy hundreds of yards from a base’s perimeter, taking down multiple drones at once. It acts as the last line of defence in a layered air defence system, similar to a “hockey goalie.”

Lowery said it would take six of these systems to defend a typical airfield. According to the Army, each of the four prototypes has cost $13 million.

Lowery said Leonidas performed better than expected in Army trials last month at the China Lake weapons range in California. The tests included how quickly soldiers could repair the system and its effectiveness against various drone attacks.

  • China Lake weapons range is a large military testing facility located in California, used by the US Navy and other branches of the armed forces to test and evaluate weapons and other defence systems.

Lowery is optimistic that Leonidas will soon be deployed overseas and that by 2027, Epirus could achieve the ultimate goal for weapons makers: becoming a “program of record” with a dedicated budget for purchasing Leonidas units in large quantities.

This could align with the Army’s timeline for directed energy weapons. Bush said they are currently planning budgets for 2026-2030 and looking at “how we could actually start procuring these systems.”

The DoD is funding the development of more powerful lasers, including 300-KW systems from companies like Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and nLight. These lasers aim to tackle larger, faster targets like cruise missiles. DoD directed energy leader Peterkin said they hope to have these ready for field testing within five years

Meanwhile, the DoD is funding the development of more powerful lasers, including 300-KW systems from companies like Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and nLight. These lasers aim to tackle larger, faster targets like cruise missiles. DoD directed energy leader Peterkin said they hope to have these ready for field testing within five years.

The US is also supporting an interesting Israeli project. Congress recently approved a military aid package for Israel that includes $1.2 billion to develop Iron Beam. This 100-KW laser from Israeli defence contractor Rafael is designed to defeat rockets and drones. Israel aims to have it ready by the end of next year, and the Pentagon might consider it as an alternative to the systems it is currently developing, Bush told reporters last year.

If the Pentagon decides to deploy any of the current laser prototypes on a large scale, it could take time for defence contractors to ramp up production. In January, the Emerging Technologies Institute, a defence industry think tank, warned that only a few companies make essential components like optics. The think tank criticised the Defence Department for “wavering in its commitment” to the technology and not clearly signaling to the industry to invest and prepare for production.

Bush said the issue is more about limited congressional funding and having many urgent priorities.

“Everything is competing with everything else,” said Bush. “But what could make a difference is the seriousness of the threat. If we can show that these systems work against the current threats in the Middle East, it could change the conversation in the Pentagon.”

-The writer is Aerospace & Defence Analyst. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily carry the views of Raksha Anirveda