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From the devastating alien heat-ray in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the handheld phasers that Captain Kirk and crew wield in episodes of “Star Trek,” laser weapons have long captured the imaginations of science fiction writers, directors, and dreamers.
These concepts are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Booz Allen Hamilton engineers and scientists are helping the Department of Defense (DoD) develop and operationalize directed energy (DE) weapons. With numerous advantages that complement traditional kinetic weapons, DE has the potential to profoundly reshape the 21st century battlefield.
“Operators can use HPM against electronic targets without the enemy ever being able to determine the source of the damage”
“Threats are evolving that directed energy better allows us to address, including boost phase defense against advanced intercontinental missiles, armed drones, hypersonic weapons, and swarming tactics,” says Booz Allen Executive Vice President Trey Obering, who is the senior executive for the firm’s DE business. “What was once considered a science project is now a necessity, and our continued military superiority depends on the outcome.”
DE weapons transmit beams or fields of concentrated electromagnetic energy at a target. There are two basic categories of DE weapons, high-energy laser (HEL) and high-powered microwaves (HPM). And each have different potential applications.
HELs can cause physical damage to targets like small boats, munitions, or drones from the ground or from the air, according to Joe Shepherd, who is director of Booz Allen's DE business.
“The same technology can be used to track, illuminate, and ‘dazzle,’ causing a temporary loss of sensor capability in a cloak of brilliant light,” he adds.
Alternatively, HPM uses high-powered radio frequency energy to disrupt a target, depositing electrical pulses or heat to cause an adverse effect. It can be used to disable vehicles and vessels and in counter-infrastructure operations by shutting down electronics. While usually less physically destructive than a high-energy laser shot, HPM weapons can give warfighters a tactical edge by eliminating the enemy’s ability to use critical equipment and offering non-lethal engagement to deescalate conflict.
One of the most compelling advantages of DE over kinetic weapons is seen in the cost-per-shot. For DE, this is primarily the cost of generating the power required to generate the beam and propagate it to the target.
“With DE, you’re talking a few dollars per shot compared to tens of thousands per shot for a kinetic weapon,” says Joe. “And you don’t have to carry gunpowder or bullets with you to reload.”
Beyond cost advantages, DE weapons offer the ability to “turn the dial” on lethality. In many instances, a military operator may simply want to disable an approaching target, rather than destroy it—a capability that DE, in many applications, can perform.
“We don’t think of DE as a replacement for conventional weapons, but as a complement. Incorporating DE can reduce cost and collateral damage,” says Booz Allen's Patrick Shannon, who is focused on business development and acquisition for DE.
Because lasers allow for pinpoint accuracy in targeting, he says, they can greatly limit collateral damage when engaging a target. And since the energy travels at the speed of light, a target cannot evade an accurately aimed HEL beam. Moreover, DE can be difficult or impossible to detect.
Operators can use HPM against electronic targets without the enemy ever being able to determine the source of the damage.
Yet, for all these potential benefits, developing DE weapons isn’t without technical challenges. Current DE technologies require packaging that is large, heavy, and requires significant amounts of power to fire.
Much of the physics for DE are reasonably understood, and there’s been significant progress in technology maturation. But the hardest part is packaging for the best possible practical and operational use.
“Directed energy is an inevitability; the question is not if it will be, but if it will be for us or for our adversaries.”
- Booz Allen Executive Vice President Trey Obering
Today, Booz Allen engineers, scientists, and operations specialists are working to address these challenges for the Navy. This team, which is primarily based at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Dahlgren, Virginia, performs research, analyzes missions and engagements, conducts effects testing, develops and deploys prototypes, and implements proofs-of-concept that are integrated on ships and other platforms.
Beyond the technical challenges of building and installing a prototype like the Laser Weapon System for the Navy, we’re thinking through the many military operational matters surrounding DE. We’re helping the DoD understand how to integrate, deploy, and operate these weapons within its warfighter doctrine, in addition to building them.
Given their technical challenges and the need for a holistic framework in order to use them, widespread operational deployment of DE weapons is still years away. In the meantime, Booz Allen is focused on helping the DoD develop and mature the technology and understand how to deploy it efficiently and effectively.
“We have an imperative to help our clients achieve their missions. Because of our broad-reaching technical expertise in DE, we have the ability to move this technology forward,” says Joe. “This includes helping our clients with technology maturation and prototyping. And internally, we are pursuing opportunities to develop relevant technology to help advance the acceptance of DE as a viable capability.”
Adds Trey: “Directed energy is an inevitability; the question is not if it will be, but if it will be for us or for our adversaries. We are fighting tomorrow’s wars today in our labs and on our test sites, and our present-day investment in directed energy will determine our ability to maintain military superiority in the future.”