Directed Energy Weapons: A Defence Against Emerging Threats

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The technological advantage currently enjoyed by western militaries will likely decline in the near future as the spread of information and goods continues to grow. Although rapid advancements have been made in a range of capabilities relevant to militaries, the specific dispersion of drone and missile technology has the potential to become a major threat if not properly checked.

Emerging capabilities such as Directed Energy Weapons represent one feasible solution to these threats. Large autonomous drones are becoming increasingly capable and affordable. Likewise small, micro-sized drones are also increasing in popularity and sophistication. While missiles have been an enduring threat, ease of transport and decreasing costs will likely see this technology become more common amongst rogue and non-state groups.

Large drones have been a prominent feature of militaries for sometime now; however, there is an ever decreasing gap between these and conventional aircraft. The Flexrotor Mk2 is one such example of this decreasing gap. It is an inexpensive military-grade drone atUS$200,000 per unit. The Flexrotor is reportedly able to carry an explosively formed projectile capable of penetrating a half-inch of steel and has the ability to travel up to 1,800 nm. To put this in context, the U.S. Naval Institute estimates that the range of an F/A -18 carrier strike wing is about 450 nm. While the Flexrotor may not quite be as capable as a F/A-18, it does represent a growing capability in large autonomous aircraft.

Advanced missile technology also appears to be becoming easier to access by state and non-state organisations. Russia has recently announced that it will begin to export its “Club-K” family of cruise missiles. These are a cheap, compact and capable missile developed for both land and ship-based targets. The Club-K family of missiles have been designed specifically to fit into standard 20 or 40 foot shipping containers, making them extremely easy to disguise and move using any number of civilian modes of transport 

The proliferation of smaller, smarter and cheaper drones has been ongoing for many years. The Australian Army is no exception, recently trialing the Black Hornet Nano Unmanned Aerial System. A single Black Hornet unit provides a tactical element with a miniature surveillance system, increasing situational awareness and survivability. Whilst the Black Hornet is designed to primarily be used as an independent unit, research has been conducted in using large numbers of micro-drones simultaneously.

In 2016, three F/A-18 dropped 103 Perdix drones to demonstrate their ability to perform adaptive formation flying, collective decision making and self-healing capabilities. This highlights how advancements in technology are enabling drones to operate more independently from human direction. China has also been undertaking similar experiments, conducting a test with 119 micro drones launched from a sling-shot in 2017. The large numbers of these micro drones, their small size and their ability to operate independently will make detection and engagement particularly difficult for many traditional Air Defence Artillery units.

Unsurprisingly, many actors have capitalised on the recent advancements in drone technology. With drones easily accessible on the civilian market, many non-state organisations have been using them as platforms to deliver weapons (or as weapons themselves), conduct surveillance as well as carry out information operations. Their affordability has contributed to their rapid uptake by non-state groups, who have been using them en mass. A notable example of this was when two Russian bases came under attack by modified massed civilian drones in Syria earlier this year.

Directed Energy Weapons

Directed Energy Weapons inflict damage onto a target by emitting highly focused energy in the form of a laser, microwaves or particle beams. Originating from President Reagan 1980’s Strategic Defence Initiative (also known as “starwars”), Directed Energy Weapons have made many advancements over the last three decades. Applications for this field of weapon systems include anti-personnel, anti-material, missile defence and non-lethal effects such as crowd dispersion and disruption of sensor suites. Directed Energy Weapons are low detection (as light does not emit sound and the reaction emitted is either above or below the visible spectrum), have a flat trajectory, a greater speed and range than conventional weapons and are easily manipulatable to have a either a lethal and non-lethal effect.

Although defence industries have been researching Directed Energy Weapons for many years, the increased proliferation of large and small / micro drones and advanced missiles has boosted interest in these systems. Russia has recently announced a motorised laser cannon designed as a point-defence system. It is thought that this short-range Directed Energy Weapon is in response to Russia’s recent experience in Syria. Similarly, Northrop Grumman’s “Skyguard” boasts the ability to destroy short-range ballistic missiles, rockets, artillery shells, mortars, unmanned areal vehicles and cruise missiles out to 10 km.

All three services of the U.S. Military have been researching Directed Energy Weapons to counter a growing number conventional and non-conventional threats in recent years. The Zeus Laser Weapon, employed by the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, was the first U.S. Directed Energy System to be used on a battlefield. This was primarily used to neutralise mines and unexploded ordnance and is reported to have a 98% success rate.

The U.S. Navy’s AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (XN-1 LaWS) has been in operational use since 2014 and is designed specifically to counter asymmetric threats such as drones and small-boat attacks. It’s solid state laser emits enough energy to destroy a target, but also has a scalable power output which may only cripple a target’s sensors rather than achieve total destruction. Among the advantages of the XN-1 LaWS is the low cost-per-shot as each firing of the weapon system is generated by an energetic pulse drawn from the ship’s engines. This is in contrast to conventional munitions which must be manufactured and delivered to its firing platform, which will inevitably only be able to hold a limited supply.

With the likely increase of sizeable autonomous vehicles, missiles and large numbers of micro drones amongst militaries and non-state actors in the near future, Directed Energy Weapon systems offer a versatile and scalable defence against these threats. Directed Energy Weapons are relatively cheap, safe and have a range of utilities depending on their power output and the type of energy emitted. The ability to have one weapon system that can easily switch between a lethal and non-lethal effect as well as the capacity to engage multiple targets in quick succession is also a capability multiplier. The question is, will the Australian Army require such a capability in the future?

About the author

Nick Waugh is an Artillery Officer in the Australian Army, Associate Editor of Grounded Curiosity and #DEFAUS Idea Pitcher.