Exploring the Potential of Directed Energy Weapons in Modern Warfare


Pratisht Chowdhry

4/26/20237 min read

The directed energy weapon is one of those emerging technology that is going to rule the future of warfare. The Directed energy weapons become special due to their lightning speed, cost effectiveness, compactness and ability to outperform every emerging technology in future be it swarm drones or hypersonic missiles. The term directed energy weapon first came Into use in 1980s when they were in development. The first known use of directed energy weapons were in Gulf war of 1991 by US where laser range finder were used to guide laser guided bombs, this wasn’t strictly a DEW which used its own beam to destroy targets but still it was a beginning of how Laser range finder relied on energy beams that somewhere later laid the foundation stone of DEW in warfare.

The nations like US, Russia, China, Israel and India are known to be working towards DEWs quite rapidly, in fact recently IAF Air chief marshal VR Chaudhari said that weapons like Hypersonic weapons and directed energy weapons have already been tested and employed by other nations, he further stressed on the DEW by highlighting their importance such as precision engagement, low cost per shot, logistical advantage and low detectibly.

Working of directed energy weapons-

The directed energy weapons concentrate energy in form of electromagnetic radiation or particle beams to destroy target. The DEW is based on different type, for example they can be laser based or high power microwave based or could be based on particle beams. The Laser based DEW concentrate a high energy beam on target, such a beam can burn or vaporize the target material. The high power microwaves on other hand work by emitting a burst of electromagnetic radiation that can damage or destroy electronics onboard the target, such type of DEW is used to disable the computers and communication system on board the enemy’s aircraft or missile. The particle beams works by accelerating particles to high speed and directing them at target, these beams can break apart molecules in target material with their high energy.

The Iron Beam-

The Directed energy weapons all over the globe are still under development phase, but the country that shows the most active development on this emerging technology is none other than Israel. The Iron beam project of Israel is DEW based on laser beam, it is made to compliment the world famous Iron dome system which has proved its effectiveness several time and has created a kind of sphere over Israel which prevents intrusion of any unintended object.

Iron dome forming an invisible shield over Israel

The Iron dome, although a successful system, did had some shortcomings like cost efficiency and short range. The shortcomings in Iron dome are being tried to be covered with Iron beam, since it has several benefits over convectional system. The Iron beam is comprised of several systems like radar system, optic system, laser system, power supply and control system.

Radar system- The first step to intercept any target is to detect it, this is done by radar system, it calculates the speed and projectile of incoming target and sends it to control systems. The radar system uses X-band waves which are emitted from AESA antennas, the X band waves are usually used for military applications because of their short wavelength a high resolution tracking of target is possible, then X band waves have narrow beam width that can focus radar’s energy in particular direction, further the X-band waves are less susceptible to weather which allows the system to operate under all conditions.

Optic system-The optic system is combination of mirrors and lenses that focuses the laser. It also includes a tracking system which is made of high speed camera having ability to capture 10000 frames per second allowing the iron beam to track high speed targets with high precision.

Iron beam’s laser system

Laser system-The laser system is heart of Iron beam, it uses a solid state laser, which means that it uses a solid material as the gain medium to produce laser beam. The laser beam produced by Iron beam is of crystal material, typically neodymium-doped yttrium aluminum garnet which has high energy storing capacity. The laser beam produced by Iron beam system has a wavelength near Infrared region of electromagnetic spectrum. The near IR wavelength is chosen because it’s easily absorbed by most of materials used in incoming projectiles, allowing laser beam to get absorbed to heat up target and destroy it.

Power supply and control system- The power supply and control system of Iron beam are responsible for providing necessary electrical power to the laser system and to control the firing of laser and moment of optic system to track incoming target.

The Iron beam is quite sophisticated system, since its introduction it has gained support from top level Israeli leadership, for example former Israeli PM Naftali Bennet said that the Iron beam can intercept a target at just a cost of 2$ compared to 50000$ that a single missile of Iron Dome can cost.

It should be also understood at the same time Iron beam is not a silver bullet as it sounds, in an interview to Uzi Rubin, a defense engineer and analyst who developed air defense for Israel said this, according to him there are several shortcomings that Iron beam or in general DEW are still to overcome. The issues are majorly regarding short range, sensitivity to weather and time it requires to destroy target.

The weather can affect efficiency of Iron beam by scattering the laser it produces which causes it to lose power (it’s called Bloom effect), furthermore conditions like high humidity can distort the trajectory of laser. To mitigate the Bloom effect, the Iron beam uses adaptive optics which adjusts the beam’s trajectory in real time to compensate for atmospheric disturbance and maintain a stable beam.

The range of system, although can be increased by increasing the input supply in future is for now quite restricted. The Iron beam is said to be operated at 100KW of electrical power at max (It’s almost 100 times of what average US household consumes at given time) but still is said to have effective range of only 12.4 Miles, compared to this are some US laser systems under development operating at 300 KW and have range of about 24 Miles, however none of them stands close to pre-existing Iron dome having intercepting range of 43 miles at max. The limited range combined with comparatively longer duration of time to destroy target is still a concern for this emerging technology, because even when lasers by Iron beam travel at speed of light it requires continuous flow of energy to target for few seconds, hence making it harder to combat multiple targets like swarm drones or huge missile attacks simultaneously.

The road ahead-

As mentioned before, several countries are actively working on Directed energy weapons; the system is currently in prototype or initial phase of development in majority of nations. The shortcomings of these weapons are being addressed by using several futuristic technology like by using solid state lasers for more efficiency, using adaptive optical systems to overcome atmospheric disturbances, using materials with high melting point or high thermal conductivity so to sustain high temp, and by using several type of cooling system. One of the another major problems with DEW is that they can easily get to temperature in thousands of degree Celsius, for example the Airborne laser system is a type of DEW used by US military that can have maximum temperature of 10000 degree Celsius (Hotter than sun’s surface).

US Navy’s LAWS laser system

The US is leading in domain with multiple projects going on, one of them being US Navy’s LAWS laser system which was a 30 KW solid state laser installed on USS Pounce on 2014, it had capability to destroy small UAV’s, disable the engine of motor boats and blow up the IED’s placed at a distance. It was not even hard to use, Rear admiral Mathew Khunder told reporters that anyone who could play PS4 or X-box could use this new energy weapon with ease. The high energy laser weapon system is another such system developed by Lockheed martin for US Navy, its twice as powerful as LAWS with ability to produce up to 60 KW of power, with a variant capable of 300 KW of power under development.

Scalability of Directed energy weapon has allowed its use in every domain.

Despite all shortcomings the biggest advantage of DEW is that they are quite scalable, its due to the same reason that how they are being able to be used from all the domains, be it a ground based vehicle or combat ships or pods onboard aircraft. The efficiency and capability of DEW will further be enhanced with Artificial intelligence and quantum computers. The DEW already have started to showcase their advantage over convectional weapon systems by proving to be more faster, cost efficient, low detectable and easy to operate, but still these weapons are much in their infant stage and at moment don’t possess that capability to intercept a giant quick moving ballistic missile or even many cruise missiles are still out of DEW’s range. The directed energy weapon have more of defensive capabilities as of now since they are for moment being installed in majority of systems only to protect it from something, however there’s a long way ahead when these weapons will be used for offensive operations.