Energy Directed Weapons

Energy Directed Weapons


Weapons that use energy to disable or destroy equipment or people are referred to as energy directed weapons. Examples include lasers, high-power microwave weapons, and charged particle beam weapons.

The genesis of energy directed weapons was the work of Albert Einstein. Einstein's 1905 Special Theory of Relativity related electric and magnetic forces in the equation E=mc 2 . The equation demonstrated that even particles of small mass moving at the speed of light possess tremendous energy.

Energy directed weapons concentrate large amounts of energy at a specific wavelength and frequency and then direct the beam of energy at the intended target. Because the particles are moving at a speed that approaches the speed of light, the beam will have a devastating amount of energy.

Rationale for energy directed weapons. Those who favor energy directed weapons argue that their development would increase the ability to fight and win a conflict.

In theory, energy directed weapons would operate at or near the speed of light. Even rapidly moving missiles would be essentially motionless to the beam. For example, a missile 50 kilometers away moving at 20,000 feet per second would only move five feet from the time a energy weapon was "fired" until contact. As well, the weapons could operate over thousands of kilometers, even in space. Finally, as long as there was power to generate the high energy, no other ammunition is required.

The use of energy directed weapons in space, particularly on Earth-orbiting satellites, has been proposed. One reason is that conventional weapons do not operate well or at all in the semi-vacuum of Earth orbit. Energy directed weapons face no such limitation. Another reason is the proliferating use of space for offensive weapons. In 1972, only nine nations were known to have ballistic missiles. By 2001, this number had grown to at least 28 nations. This increase has bolstered the argument for the ability to defend and if necessary retaliate from space.

Laser weapons. A laser—an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation"—emits a tightly focused beam of specific radiation that does not diverge from the beam path. Chemical lasers use reactive energy between compounds (i.e., oxygen/iodine and deuterium/fluoride). Solid state lasers use electricity to produce the beam. Chemical lasers currently produce much more energy than do solid-state lasers. This power, however, comes at the expense of a large volume for the great quantities of chemicals required.

High power laser light can damage or permanently destroy the eyes, and obliterate objects in its path. For example, a weapon called the Saber 203 is a "laser grenade" that is capable of temporarily blinding those in the path of the ray. The weapon was deployed, but never used with United States troops during the 1990 Gulf War, and with troops deployed to Somalia in 1995. Another weapon called the Dazer fires up to 50 laser pulses per minute. It is being used by U.S. Special Operations Command forces.

Research by the U.S. Army and Navy to develop lasers for air and sea has been underway since the early 1970s. A chemical laser weapon capable of being mounted on the next generation of fighter jet (Joint Strike Fighter) and destroyer (DDX) is scheduled to be ready for testing in 2010. As of 2002, a chemical laser was to be built aboard a modified Boeing 747 aircraft. The airborne chemical laser, which will be the first in the U.S., is controversial because of the possibility of environmental damage from the chemicals carried aboard the aircraft.

Military use of lasers is currently confined to low-power units that measure the distance to a target or help aim other weapons. Lasers could become much more formidable weapons. For example, experts agree that a 25 to 100 kilowatt laser would be powerful enough to disable equipment hundreds of miles away, and could burn through metal, such as the outer casing of a missile, dozens of miles away.

High-power microwave weapons. High-power microwave (HPM) weapons are also known as Radio Frequency weapons and Ultra-Wideband weapons. HPM weapons have been in development by the United States, Russia, China, and other countries for decades. The weapons produce high-energy bursts; a typical HPM weapon consists of a power source that can be electrical or explosive, a microwave generator, and an antenna to direct the beam of radiation. The intense surge of energy that is emitted disables electronics in vehicles, communications equipment, and other weapons. Such a weapon was successfully field tested by the U.S. in April 2001.

Particle beam. Development of the particle beam weapon (PBW) began in the U.S. in the late 1950s, under the code name Seesaw. A PBW operates by accelerating components of a hydrogen atom—either the negatively charged electron or the positively charged proton—to almost the speed of light, and then focusing these atoms into a beam. The destructive power of the particle beam is due to the collision of the positively or negatively charged ions with

A U.S. Navy pilot inspects the laser guided weapons aboard his F/A-18C Hornet prior to his mission from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
A U.S. Navy pilot inspects the laser guided weapons aboard his F/A-18C Hornet prior to his mission from the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.

the atoms of the target. The energy transfer causes an explosion, which obliterates the target.

The charged version of a particle beam weapon would be utilized where there is an atmosphere. The neutral particle beam weapon, which is not as powerful, is more suitable to the friction-free atmosphere of space, where it retains enough power to be destructive. A space version of a PBW does not yet exist. Among the developmental limitations is an aiming system capable of accuracy over thousands of kilometers, and the maintenance of a tightly focused beam over such vast distances (a beam composed of like-charged particles will tend to broaden out, as the particles repel one another).

Limitations and criticisms of energy directed weapons. Because energy directed weapons are beamed at the target, they are "line of sight" weapons. Unless technological changes allow the beams to be precisely bent or reflected, objects that are not directly in front of the beam will not be targeted. In contrast, a conventional weapon such as bomb can destroy its target even when the weapon is slightly off the intended destination. Furthermore, laser beams are blocked by clouds, limiting their use to all but fair weather.

Those who oppose energy directed weapons argue that civilian casualties and infrastructure damage will be greater than with the present methods of warfare. Also the weapons could be an ideal terrorist tool. The source of energy directed weapons could be disguised, and no traces are left behind.

The collateral effects of energy directed weapons such as lasers are still unclear. While an enemy target would certainly be disrupted or even destroyed, the possibility of damage to civilian structures (i.e., equipment in hospitals) or civilians themselves (i.e., disruption of pacemakers) has made the deployment of energy directed weapons controversial. Even if the energy weapon can be contained in a relatively narrow beam prior to the strike, dispersion of the energy at ground level will likely occur. It is this traveling shock wave of energy that could produce the collateral damage.



Duffner, Robert. Airborne Laser: Bullets of Light. New York: Plenum Trade, 1997.


In These Times. "Now You See, Now You Don't." The Institute for Public Affairs. September 27, 2002. < >(17 December 2002).

Lexington Institute, 1600 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 900, Arlington VA 22209. (703) 522–5828. < >.


DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)
Electromagnetic Weapons, Biochemical Effects
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

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