• Wed. Jun 7th, 2023

Science & Tech Spotlight: Directed Power Weapons


May 25, 2023

Why This Matters

There is a surge in interest in directed power weapons from quite a few nations—including the U.S.—primarily for counter drone missions. These weapons use electromagnetic power to result in effects ranging from deterrence to destruction. They offer you capabilities that standard weapons may perhaps not, but challenges have so far prevented widespread operational use.

The Technologies

What is it? Directed power weapons (DEW) use concentrated electromagnetic power to combat enemy forces and assets. These weapons incorporate higher power lasers and other higher energy electromagnetics—such as millimeter wave and higher energy microwave weapons. In contrast to weapons that fire bullets or missiles, DEWs can respond to a threat in unique techniques. For instance, they can temporarily degrade electronics on a drone or physically destroy it. See our 2022 Spotlight for a lot more information and facts on counter-drone technologies.

How does it operate? Every single form of DEW utilizes a unique area of the electromagnetic spectrum (see fig. 1). This spectrum describes all of the sorts of light—including these the human eye can not see—and classifies them according to wavelength. Various sorts of electromagnetic power have unique properties. For instance, the wavelength impacts what the directed power can penetrate—such as metal or human skin.

Figure 1. Place of directed power weapons on the electromagnetic spectrum.

All DEWs emit power at the speed of light, and are generally discussed in terms of their energy output—the quantity of electromagnetic power transferred more than time. When DEWs use electromagnetic power comparable to each day products, such as household microwaves, their energy output is vastly greater, as described beneath.

Higher power lasers make a extremely narrow beam of light, normally in the infrared to visible area, and are commonly utilised on 1 target at a time. The beam can be pulsed or continuous, creating a energy output of at least 1 kilowatt. This output is 200,000 instances higher than a standard laser pointer and is capable of melting steel.

Millimeter wave weapons have wavelengths involving 1 and ten millimeters and produce a lot more than 1 kilowatt of energy. Millimeter wave weapons have a bigger beam size than higher power lasers and consequently can influence many targets at when.

Higher energy microwave weapons make microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than higher power lasers and millimeter wave weapons. These weapons can make a lot more than one hundred megawatts of energy, which is practically 150,000 instances a lot more highly effective than the typical household microwave. Like millimeter wave weapons, they can also influence many targets simply because of their bigger beam size.

Every single DEW can make a variety of effects from nonlethal to lethal, based on aspects such as the time on target, the distance to the target, and even the element of the target on which the DEW is focused. DEWs can use this variety of effects to graduate responses to a threat. A graduated response could start off with temporarily stopping use of an asset or its access to an region and boost to destruction of the asset if needed (see fig. two).

Figure two. Examples of graduated responses employing directed power weapons.

DEWs can deny entrance to an region or avoid enemy forces or assets from functioning inside an region. DEWs utilised for denial do not result in extended-term harm to targets, and when enemy forces or assets leave the region, they commonly regain function or the impact is mitigated. For instance, the Division of Defense’s (DOD) Active Denial Program utilizes millimeter waves that interact with the water and fat molecules in a person’s skin to generate a heating sensation. In the course of testing, the discomfort persuaded folks to move away from the region.

DEWs can also degrade the efficacy of an enemy’s assets. For instance, higher power lasers can temporarily overwhelm a particular person or a sensor’s capacity to see or sense by emitting a glare—called dazzling. Dazzling can act as a non-verbal warning prior to resorting to enhanced force.

If a higher quantity of force is necessary, DEWs can also harm or destroy enemy assets. To do this, a higher power laser can emit electromagnetic power with a wavelength the target material absorbs most successfully, melting the material. The laser could concentrate on a sensor and harm a drone, or concentrate on a fuel tank or battery and destroy it.

How mature is it? DEWs variety in maturity from investigation projects to prototypes tested in the field. DOD named DEWs as a technologies essential to enabling the 2018 National Defense Tactic and reported spending about $1 billion annually for the final three years on investigation and improvement. The U.S. military has tested a selection of DEW prototypes considering the fact that 2014, mostly for counter-drone missions. For instance, the Air Force’s prototype Tactical Higher Energy Microwave Operational Responder (THOR) lately completed two years of testing. DOD is researching techniques to boost the energy output of DEWs to engage a lot more highly effective targets—like missiles. Nevertheless, as GAO lately reported, the U.S. military faces challenges bridging the gap involving DEW improvement and acquisition, potentially limiting widespread operational use.

Why now? DEW investigation and improvement has been ongoing for decades in quite a few countries—including the U.S.—and is at present experiencing a surge worldwide. This surge stems in element from advances in technologies and a want to keep competitiveness on the battlefield. Technological innovations, such as the improvement of smaller sized lasers that are safer to operate, allow contemporary DEWs to be significantly a lot more transportable and sensible. For instance, a 4-wheel all-terrain car can now hold a higher power laser highly effective adequate to harm drones. The U.S. and 30 other nations are building DEWs, most for counter-drone missions, according to a 2021 Air Force report.


  • Complement to standard weapons. DEWs use power fired at the speed of light, creating them more rapidly and potentially significantly less pricey per shot than missiles. Some DEWs have practically limitless ammunition and can fire as extended as they have energy.
  • Ease of graduated response. DOD can tailor DEWs to meet mission requires from nonlethal to lethal responses. For instance, the longer a laser is focused on target, the a lot more harm or destruction will take place.
  • Advancing other utilizes. Investigation and improvement for DEWs could also advantage civilian utilizes. For instance, the improvement of greater power lasers could assist projects that use directed power to transport or “beam” energy to remote and disadvantaged places.


  • Technological limitations. DEWs are typically significantly less productive the farther they are from the target, and atmospheric circumstances and cooling specifications can limit their effectiveness. For instance, fog and storms can lessen laser beam variety and top quality.
  • Battlefield use. Choices about how and when to use DEWs or standard weapons may perhaps be difficult. For instance, wider beam DEWs, such as higher energy microwave or millimeter wave weapons, influence all assets in an region, no matter whether buddy or foe. 
  • Ethical and overall health issues. Even though there are potentially relevant international laws and recommendations, their applicability to DEWs is not constantly effectively defined. Uncertainty about extended-term overall health effects of DEWs on individuals either intentionally or unintentionally exposed to directed power has led to issues relating to the ethics of employing DEWs.

Policy Context and Inquiries

  • As the technologies matures, what actions could policymakers take to assist bridge the gap involving DEW improvement and acquisition?
  • What actions could policymakers take to assure there is suitable guidance for employing DEWs as the technologies matures?
  • What are the trade-offs of employing nonlethal DEW technologies prior to possible overall health effects are completely understood?

For a lot more information and facts, speak to: Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or bothwellb@gao.gov.

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