Directed Energy Weapons Face Hurdles

By Magnuson, Stew | National Defense, March 2006 | Go to article overview

Directed Energy Weapons Face Hurdles


Magnuson, Stew, National Defense


In an animated video shown by the Defense Department's office of force transformation, a team of Stryker vehicles tears through urban canyons on their way to rescue two downed helicopter pilots.

An insurgent first attempts to set off a roadside bomb through his cell phone, but a jammer blocks the signal. An angry mob then blocks a street, but a non-lethal active denial system using microwave millimeter technology along with a sonic blast pushes the crowd aside.

The Stryker vehicles arrive at the crash site, but are immediately ambushed by enemies firing rocket-propelled grenades. However, an automatic radar tracking and kinetic energy system both detonates the missiles in mid-air, and gives the crew coordinates of their launching points. The soldiers quickly return fire, and rescue the pilots.

It is the "Black Hawk Down" scenario--recognizable to anyone has seen the film or read the book based on the predicament of soldiers in Mogadishu--but this time with a happy ending.

The directed energy weapons used by the Stryker crews in the video are on the verge of being deployed. Some may reach Iraq and Afghanistan within this calendar year, but there are several hurdles program directors and policymakers must overcome if these new systems are to make an impact in urban battlefields. The biggest challenges will have little to do with the technology, the weapons' proponents admit.

Public perception, acceptance by battlefield commanders, and treaty, legal mid policy concerns will have more to do with their success than the science that has gone into them, Defense Department officials said at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference.

Brian Mork, a principal system engineer at Edwards Air Force Base's 412th Test Wing, said these weapons have undergone development for 30 years. "It's time to move it past just the technology demo and talk about how you stick this into the war."

Marine Corps Col. David Karcher, commander of the joint non-lethal weapons directorate, said few people inside and outside the military "inherently understand directed energy technology."

Northrop Grumman Corp. analyst Richard Dunn said the laser age is approaching much quicker than most in the Pentagon, Congress and the military war colleges realize. The company in January was awarded a 36month, $56-million contract to further develop a joint high power solid-state laser.

"We've got to develop a constituency, people who can grasp the potential of [this technology] and force us to have a discussion," he said.

Misperceptions on the part of the public, and the review boards that must approve these weapons, are merely one of the many hurdles. Board members come from all walks of life. For such weapons as the active denial system and airborne laser to gain acceptance, the military must address the "death ray" perception associated with laser technologies.

For example, an inevitable question for non-lethal weapons targeting people will be what happens to women who might be pregnant? Conspiracy theorists may claim the United States is deploying technology to sterilize men or women. Will the technology cause skin cancer or birth defects?

"For the non-lethal side, since we're directly targeting people, we have to answer that," Karcher said.

In addition to being scrutinized by review boards, the weapons must gain legal and treaty clearances to ensure they meet the laws of armed conflict. Laser dazzlers--a bright light designed to warn drivers in civilian vehicles away from approaching convoys or roadblocks--and the active denial system, which uses microwave millimeter technology to control mobs, are non-lethal weapons designed to reduce casualties. Even though they're designed as alternatives to lethal weapons such as bombs or bullets, they must pass internationally recognized definitions of humaneness, Karcher said. …

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