Directed Energy Weapons: New Frontier of Warfare


The genesis of 'Directed Energy Weapon' (DEWs) came up during cold war when Karl Bendetson and the High Frontier panel of private citizens advised President Ronald Reagan for a crash program to develop missile defenses. It was not just to defend against Soviet nuclear weapons but also because of strong indications that the Soviets were going to deploy 'powerful directed energy weapons' in space to gain control of space by using weapons like lasers, jammers etc. Towards the end of Cold War, the US focused on ballistic missile defence and spending on DEWs. US closest to actual deployments are the Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL) and the Airborne Laser (ABL).


Directed-energy weapons, which offer advantages over conventional weapons by providing attack at the speed of light, rapid and unlimited engagement, flexibility, low operational cost, precise targeting, of multiple targets and covering wide areas, seem to be at the vanguard of the next revolution in military weapons.


In 1996 as a joint program between the US and Israel came up together to develop a laser system capable of shooting down Katyusha rockets, artillery, and mortar shells. So far program has witnessed substantial success and still under development phase with some successful tests over the decades from air, water and sea.


Meanwhile, long standing investment in DEWs has started paying US off. US navy on April 8th 2013, officially announced its new high energy laser weapon technology, a year ahead of scheduled, in which a prototype shipboard laser will be deployed on a converted amphibious transport and docking ship in the Persian Gulf. Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS), will engage six powerful lasers into one directional powerful beam of light, which would able to destroy UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) and high speed boats. In 2009 LaWS was tested in a desert environment at naval warfare center in California where five UAVs at different ranges were successfully destroyed. In 2010 it was again tested at sea coast of San Nicolas island California under realistic marine time sea environment, the test was successful destroying four UAVs and couple of high speed boat, hence it validates the deployment of this laser weapon in actual operational conditions.


In recent years the tension in Persian Gulf has heightened between US and Iran. According to New York Times, “Iranian fast-attack boats have harassed American warships and where the government in Tehran is building remotely piloted aircraft carrying surveillance pods and, someday potentially, rockets”. Hence an effective weapon system is eminent. These laser weapons have ability to give early warning accurately, thereby avoiding collateral damage. After burning their fingers in Afghanistan and subsequently in Iraq, American has learned that a conventional weapon system would not be viable in changing modern warfare era. Conventional weapons such as missile and projectiles are vital for defensive and offensive engagement, but they are limited, expensive and require time for engagement.


High energy Laser weapons outrage conventional weapon by providing speed of light engagement with reduced collateral damage at tactically significant range, unlimited number of shots therefore minimizing use of defensive missiles and projectiles. Manufactured in less than US$ 30 million and engagement cost of less than US$1 per shot vis-à-vis to current short-range air-defense interceptor missiles which costs up to $1.4 million each; the system is highly cost effective. Although the costs involved in research and development of DEWs is substantial, it’s important to note that the nature of this cost is one-time and not reoccurring. This weapon also have ability to give Unambiguous Warning at Range by using “frequency-doubling crystal, an intense, visible beam can be projected to significant ranges to provide warning that a potential target is about to be engaged” ( unless an immediate change in behavior is observed.


For more than half a century, the US has defined its paramount national security interest in the Persian Gulf to safeguard its oil installations in Saudi Arabia and the neighboring emirate of Bahrain. As per Brookings Institution report, 17% of U.S. oil imports and less than 0.5% of natural gas imports originate from the Persian Gulf. This indicates that US dependence on Persian Gulf for energy need is not extensive, as was earlier believed. The pertinent question is: If it’s not about energy security then why is USA deploying DEWs in the Gulf? According to Council for Foreign Relation, America’s presence is vital element to secure and “maintain the security of world trade over the seas and air while also ensuring that international economic transactions take place in an orderly way” by helping in security of their allies in Gulf.


However, US hegemony and their quest for 'balance of power' in this region are not hidden. To upkeep their dominance in the region, weapons like DEW will play as catalyst to project their power. But it is also noteworthy that these lasers have limitations, as 'lasers are not effective in bad weather because the beam can be disturbed or scattered by water vapor, as well as by smoke, sand and dust'. It is also a 'line of sight' weapon, meaning that the target has to be visible, has single wavelengths that limit the range of operational conditions in which they are effective and constant focused beam on target is crucial. In addition the weapon in not very much effective of high speed targets such as fighters and ballistic missiles. Hence weapon effectiveness would be best known after deployment.


Nonetheless for country like India which does not face any direct conventional threat in Gulf but the non-traditional threats such as pirates, marine terrorism, mine deployments and threat from non-state actors, weapon like these could aid the operation needs. India’s interest in Gulf is much more crucial and security measure is indispensable than any other country in world, as majority of energy needs is fulfilled from this area, so major security challenge India is facing today is that of securing these sea lanes. Therefore to ensure uninterrupted supply of energy to support the economic and commercial activities necessary for sustained economic growth, these weapons help in rapid engagement at reasonable cost. Ability of these weapons to engage with mortar rounds, floating mines, artillery rounds and unambiguous warning at range, serve the vital purpose of India avoiding collateral damage while saving own interest in the region.


Though the technology is in nascent stage and its technical analysis in terms of feasibility, utility, practicality to deployment need considerable time and rigorous research, but so far have  provides strong evidence that a useful, tactical system could be produced. India cannot be oblivious to the fact that modern as well as futuristic warfare scenario would be dominated by technologically advance and asymmetric threats. Many people might question the economic feasibility of this kind of weapon technology.  But, the hard fact is that we cannot fight a war with archers in era of snipers. With the unprecedented pace at which new technologies are emerging, the conventional weapons would soon become obsolete. Development of new weapon technologies has overshot projection; hence conventional warfare could enter the age of laser weapons within the decade, much sooner than what most of us expected. Even though DRDO in 2010 announced that they are developing high energy laser weapon technology to shoot down missiles, but as of now program is in its formative stage, henceforth it seems that India has to push the program on higher stake.

Author Note
Parveen Bhardwaj, Research Intern, Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.