Laser Directed Energy Weapons: The Illusion of Defense Against Hypersonic Missiles


Directed energy weapons (DEWs) have long occupied a tantalizing niche in the spectrum of military capabilities, existing somewhere between the realms of hard science and the imaginative leaps of science fiction. These weapons, which harness high-energy lasers and high-powered microwaves, offer a promise of futuristic warfare that seems lifted from the pages of a Buck Rogers comic strip. Yet, despite their early 20th-century conceptual origins, DEWs remain a subject of debate: Are they the imminent revolution in warfare, or a perennially emerging technology that is always just out of reach?

The U.S. military’s engagement with directed energy technology spans several decades, marked by cycles of heightened expectation and tempered realization. The allure of DEWs lies in their potential to offer what conventional arms cannot — a seemingly endless magazine of energy capable of engaging targets with precision, without the logistical burden of ammunition supply chains. This aspect alone makes the pursuit of DEWs not just desirable but seemingly inevitable.

Central to the current discourse on DEWs is Mark Spencer, the director of the Joint Directed Energy Transition Office at the Pentagon. Spencer, speaking at the Association of Old Crows annual conference, articulated a vision of DEWs as pivotal components in future military engagements. His office, established under the guidance of Heidi Shyu, the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, is tasked with transitioning directed energy from conceptual models to battlefield realities. Spencer’s assertion that DEWs represent a “game-changing technology” is both a reflection of their potential and an acknowledgment of the challenges that have historically beset their development.

The narrative of DEWs being perpetually five years from deployment has been a recurring theme in defense circles. Spencer’s efforts aim to transcend this cycle of overpromising and underdelivering. He cited several programs that signify progress, including the Optical Dazzling Interdictor (ODIN), High-Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-Dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS), and the Tactical High Power Microwave Operational Responder (THOR), among others. However, the reality, as indicated by the finer details of these programs, suggests a cautious deployment, primarily for testing and evaluation rather than full operational integration.

The skepticism surrounding the current state of DEW deployment was echoed by Vice Adm. Brendan McLane, commander of the Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. Reflecting on the Navy’s historical engagement with DEWs, including the installation of the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) on the USS Ponce, McLane advocated for a more aggressive deployment schedule. His call for equipping every Navy ship with directed energy capabilities underscores a growing impatience with the pace of DEW integration into the naval arsenal.

The backdrop to this discussion is the operational theater where directed energy weapons could alter the dynamics of engagement — the Red Sea confrontations with Houthi rebels. The ability of DEWs to counter missile and drone threats was highlighted as a missed opportunity, given their absence from the Navy’s active arsenal.

The technological and logistical hurdles to DEW deployment are non-trivial. The National Defense Industrial Association’s report on DEW supply chains outlines significant challenges, from the scarcity of critical raw materials like gallium and germanium to the limitations of current manufacturing and testing infrastructure. The recommendations from the report — establishing consistent demand signals, securing raw material sources, creating programs of record, nurturing a skilled workforce, and expanding the supply chain — are pivotal steps towards realizing the DEW potential.

Beyond the technical and logistical challenges lies a broader strategic context. The emergence of drone swarms in conflicts, as observed in Ukraine, Gaza, and the Red Sea, underscores the evolving nature of threats and the potential role of DEWs in countering them. The attributes of DEWs, particularly their ability to engage multiple targets with precision and efficiency, make them an attractive proposition for neutralizing such threats.

The journey of directed energy weapons from the realms of speculative fiction to tangible military assets is a complex narrative of technological ambition, strategic necessity, and persistent challenges. While the “here and now” proponents point to incremental advancements and successful tests, the skeptics highlight the gap between isolated successes and comprehensive, large-scale deployment.

The question of whether directed energy weapons are a present reality or a future possibility remains open. What is clear, however, is the growing consensus on their potential role in the next generation of warfare, driven by the evolving demands of the battlefield and the relentless pursuit of technological advancement. As the debate continues, the trajectory of DEWs will be shaped by a confluence of factors — strategic imperatives, technological breakthroughs, and the resolve to navigate the intricate path from concept to combat.

Global Directed Energy Weapons Market to Reach $111.4 Billion by 2030

The landscape of global defense is on the cusp of a revolution with the advent and integration of Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), a transformation set to redefine modern warfare. As of 2023, the DEW market stands at an estimated $26.8 billion and is projected to soar to $111.4 billion by 2030, marking a robust Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 19.5%. This surge reflects the growing acceptance and integration of DEW systems across various defense sectors, driven by their precision, adaptability, and cost-effectiveness in combat and strategic defense operations.

Technological Frontiers in Directed Energy Weapons

Directed Energy Weapons, encompassing High Energy Lasers (HELs), High-Power Microwaves (HPMs), and Particle Beam Weapons, represent the pinnacle of military technology evolution. These weapons offer strategic advantages in speed, precision, and stealth, making them critical assets in modern military arsenals. HELs, leading the charge, are anticipated to experience a CAGR of 20.9%, reaching $78.9 billion by the end of the analysis period. The escalation in HELs can be attributed to their capacity to deliver precise and controlled energy to distant targets, proving instrumental in neutralizing threats while minimizing collateral damage.

Regional Dynamics and Economic Impacts

The DEW market’s expansion is not uniform across the globe but is particularly pronounced in regions with heightened security concerns and advanced technological capabilities. The United States, with a 2023 market estimation of $10.1 billion, is at the forefront, propelled by significant investments in research and development of DEWs. The U.S. Department of Defense has been actively funding programs to enhance the capabilities and integration of DEWs in its military strategy, focusing on countering emerging threats such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and missile defense.

China, trailing the U.S., is predicted to witness the highest growth rate, with a CAGR of 22.3%, aspiring to reach a market size of $17.5 billion by 2030. This growth is part of China’s broader military modernization initiative, emphasizing the development of asymmetric capabilities like DEWs to counterbalance the conventional military superiority of the U.S. and its allies.

Other regions, including Japan, Canada, and Germany, are also investing substantially in DEWs, each forecasting growth rates of 16.5%, 17.3%, and 18.8% respectively over the 2023-2030 period. Europe, with its collective defense mechanisms, is seeing a concerted effort in DEW research and deployment, aiming to enhance its defense infrastructure and readiness in response to evolving global threats.

Competitive Landscape and Market Innovations

The DEW market is characterized by a dynamic competitive landscape, where entities are categorized based on their market presence into strong, active, niche, and trivial segments. Major defense contractors and technology firms are at the forefront of this market, driving innovations and advancements to cater to the growing demand for efficient and sophisticated DEW systems.

Innovations in DEW technology focus on enhancing range, accuracy, power, and operational flexibility, with notable developments in laser technology, beam control, power generation, and thermal management. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman are leading the charge, securing contracts and partnerships with military agencies to develop and deploy DEWs across various platforms, including ground-based installations, naval ships, aircraft, and space-based systems.

The UK’s LDEW Initiative: A Journey of Innovation and Persistence

In early 2017, a significant stride was made in the UK’s defense sector when the Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) awarded a £30 million contract to a consortium led by MBDA. This marked the commencement of a project to develop a demonstrator for Laser Directed Energy Weapons (LDEW), heralding a new phase in the UK’s defense technology advancements.

Despite the project’s high-profile announcement and the initial fanfare, progress seemed to slow, sparking rumors of a stall. However, developments were quietly advancing behind the scenes. It wasn’t until October 2022 that the public witnessed the fruits of this laborious effort, with the first trials against static targets at the Dstl Porton Down range. These trials showcased the steady progress in the development of LDEW technology in the UK.

The journey didn’t stop there. In July 2023, the project achieved a significant milestone with the successful conclusion of low-power tracking trials at the Hebrides Range. This was promptly followed by a more ambitious high-power test in October 2023, where a moving aerial target was successfully neutralized. This event marked a pivotal moment in the UK’s defense history, proving that British LDEW technology had reached a level of maturity sufficient to consider operational deployment.

Strategic Expansion and Future Horizons

The momentum gained from these successful trials led to a strategic decision in September 2023. The Ministry of Defence announced the funding for a three-year Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) Transition Phase, spanning from 2024 to 2027. This phase aims to extend the scope of LDEW developments to encompass ground-based air defense systems while continuing the advancements in maritime applications through projects like DragonFire. Furthermore, this phase will explore the potential of a high-frequency radio directed energy weapon (RFDEW) tailored for countering unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

DragonFire, a notable project within the UK’s LDEW portfolio, represents just one aspect of the country’s broader commitment to this technology, with an investment totalling around £100 million. Parallel to DragonFire, a consortium led by Thales, and including significant defense players like BAE Systems and Chess Dynamics, embarked on Project Tracey in 2021. This project aimed to produce advanced LDEW demonstrators for the Royal Navy, initially targeting a trial on a Type 23 frigate in 2023. However, the trial was postponed, likely due to technological maturity concerns and strategic reallocations of funding.

Looking ahead, the UK has ambitious plans for LDEW integration, particularly in its naval forces. A key goal is the development of a 150kw class naval LDEW, with prospects of deployment on Type 26 frigates in the early 2030s. This initiative underscores the UK’s dedication to fortifying its maritime defense capabilities with state-of-the-art laser technology.

The US in the LDEW Arena: Leading the Charge

The United States has been a frontrunner in LDEW development, having successfully fielded the 30 Kw Laser Weapon System (LaWS) in 2017. The US Navy’s introduction of the AN/SEQ-4 Optical Dazzler Interdictor Navy (ODIN), a counter-UAS system, on its destroyers further demonstrated its lead in operationalizing laser technology in maritime defense. The testing of the 150kw class Laser Weapon System Demonstrator (LWSD) in 2020 and the integration of the 60kw High-Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) system on USS Preble in 2022, highlight the progressive strides the US has made in this domain.

The US is not resting on its laurels; it is actively pursuing the development of the 300kw High Energy Laser Counter-ASCM Program (HELCAP). This program aims to enhance the US Navy’s capabilities in neutralizing anti-ship missiles, showcasing a clear strategic vision for integrating high-powered laser systems into its defense architecture.

Comparative Analysis: UK and US LDEW Efforts

While the UK’s LDEW projects are more modest in scale compared to the US, they represent significant steps towards establishing an independent and sovereign defense technological capability. Unlike the US initiatives, the UK’s DragonFire project stands out as a fully independent venture, not reliant on US components or intellectual property.

The strategic paths taken by the UK and the US in LDEW development reflect their respective defense priorities and technological ambitions. The UK’s focused approach on specific projects like DragonFire and Project Tracey indicates a more concentrated investment strategy, aimed at building capabilities that are tailored to its defense needs and operational contexts. In contrast, the US demonstrates a broader and more aggressive expansion in LDEW technology, characterized by rapid testing and deployment across various platforms and mission scenarios.

The Future Landscape of LDEWs

As LDEWs continue to evolve, they promise to redefine the paradigms of modern warfare. With their ability to offer precise, scalable, and cost-effective defense solutions, LDEWs represent a shift towards more advanced and sustainable military operations. The developments in the UK and the US serve as a testament to the growing global interest in harnessing the power of laser technology for defense purposes.

The journey of LDEWs from conceptual designs to operational weapons systems is fraught with technical challenges, strategic considerations, and geopolitical implications. As nations like the UK and the US pioneer these advancements, they pave the way for a new era in military technology, where the fusion of innovation, strategy, and tactical superiority will shape the future of global security and defense.

The DragonFire Consortium: A Beacon of Innovation in LDEW Technology

The DragonFire project, spearheaded by a consortium of defense technology luminaries, epitomizes the collaborative spirit and technological prowess required to forge new frontiers in military capabilities. This consortium, led by MBDA, unites the expertise of several industry giants, each contributing their unique strengths to develop a state-of-the-art Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) system. Here, we delve into the roles and contributions of each consortium member, shedding light on the intricate symphony of technology and innovation that is DragonFire.

A full-size model of the DragonFire beam director on display at DTSL Porton Down. The laser source enters the unit through the panel at the bottom and is directed through gimbals and mirrors out through the lens (bottom right). The window (top right) is for high-resolution cameras and the large telescope on the (top left) provides input for the tracking system (Photo: Navy Lookout).

MBDA: The Nucleus of Command and Control

At the core of the DragonFire consortium is MBDA, a leader in missile systems, steering the project’s trajectory. MBDA’s contribution transcends mere leadership; it encompasses the provision of the Command and Control (C2) system, which serves as the brain of the operation. Leveraging its rich heritage in missile technology, MBDA has infused the project with advanced image processing and tracking algorithms. These algorithms, honed through years of missile development, enhance the precision and efficacy of the LDEW system, ensuring it can accurately track and engage targets with unerring accuracy.

QinetiQ: Mastering the Laser Source

QinetiQ plays a pivotal role in DragonFire, providing the fibre amplifiers crucial for delivering the laser’s raw power. The heart of DragonFire beats with solid-state fibre optic laser technology, characterized by its efficiency and lethality. Tens of glass fibres carry light, meticulously combined into a singular, potent beam. The technology behind this beam combination is among the UK’s most guarded secrets, underscoring the strategic value and advanced nature of the DragonFire project.

Leonardo: Directing the Beam with Precision

Leonardo, renowned for its technological innovations, has taken on the challenge of constructing the beam director, a critical component of DragonFire. This element is not just the most visible part of the system but also one of the most technologically challenging. Leonardo’s task is to ensure that the heat energy of the laser remains precisely focused on a target the size of a one-pound coin, even over several kilometers and despite the movement of both the target and the weapon system. Leveraging experience from developing the Miysis Directed Infrared Countermeasure (DIRCM) system, Leonardo has harnessed its expertise in laser technology to tackle this formidable challenge.

DragonFire’s targeting process begins with an external sensor, often radar, which provides initial coarse tracking data. This data guides the system toward the target, after which it shifts to precise visual tracking, honed by Leonardo’s advanced systems.

The Role of Fast Moving Mirrors (FMM)

A crucial technological aspect of DragonFire is the use of Fast Moving Mirrors (FMM) to steer the laser beam. These mirrors are the linchpins of the system’s ability to maintain beam focus on the target. High-speed cameras and sophisticated algorithms work in tandem to provide continuous feedback, adjusting the mirrors with extraordinary precision to keep the laser beam pinpointed on the target. The control of these mirrors is a feat of engineering, requiring extreme accuracy to ensure that minor adjustments do not misalign the beam over long distances.

Moreover, to withstand the intense energy of the laser, special materials have been chosen for the mirrors, and innovative low-absorption coating technologies have been developed. These advancements prevent the mirrors from succumbing to the laser’s power, ensuring the system’s longevity and reliability.

Directed Energy Weapons: A New Paradigm in Modern Warfare

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), particularly Laser Directed Energy Weapons (LDEWs), represent a transformative advancement in military technology, offering both strategic advantages and limitations in modern warfare. These weapons, harnessing the power of focused energy, are shaping the future of military engagements, particularly in maritime environments. This article delves into the comprehensive analysis of the pros and cons of LDEWs, providing a nuanced understanding of their operational effectiveness, limitations, and the implications for future warfare.

Strategic Advantages of Laser Directed Energy Weapons – Pros and cons

LDEWs offer significant advantages over traditional projectile-based systems, fundamentally altering the logistics and strategy of military operations. One of the most critical benefits of LDEWs is their sustainability and logistical efficiency. Unlike conventional munitions, which can be rapidly depleted, LDEWs do not face the problem of ammunition exhaustion. This characteristic eliminates the need for constant replenishment, thereby simplifying the logistics chain and reducing the operational footprint of military forces.

Cost-effectiveness is another significant advantage of LDEWs. The operational cost of firing a laser weapon is markedly lower compared to traditional munitions. A single shot from an LDEW can cost merely tens of dollars, whereas advanced gun ammunition and missiles can cost hundreds to millions of dollars per round. This cost disparity becomes especially relevant in prolonged engagements, where the financial burden of munitions can be substantial.

In terms of target engagement, LDEWs excel with their rapid response capability and precision. These weapons can swiftly neutralize high-speed and agile targets, which would otherwise require complex calculations and maneuvering for interception using conventional missiles. The precise targeting ability of LDEWs allows for selective engagement of specific target areas, minimizing collateral damage and reducing unintended casualties.

LDEWs also offer a graduated response capability, providing a spectrum of operational options ranging from non-lethal to lethal. For instance, they can be used to jam electro-optical sensors, temporarily incapacitate personnel, or inflict varying degrees of damage to equipment, up to and including total destruction of targets. This versatility allows for a more controlled and proportional use of force in combat scenarios.

Limitations and Challenges of Laser Directed Energy Weapons

Despite their advantages, LDEWs are not without limitations, and they are not a universal solution for all combat situations. One of the primary constraints of laser weapons is their line-of-sight requirement. Lasers are effective only in direct visual paths and are limited by geographical and environmental factors, such as the horizon in maritime settings.

Environmental conditions play a significant role in the operational effectiveness of LDEWs. Factors like smoke, pollutants, and atmospheric particles can severely reduce the range and power of laser beams. In marine environments, salt particles, water vapor, and fog can diminish a laser’s effectiveness, necessitating adaptations such as wavelength tuning to mitigate these challenges.

The phenomenon of ‘thermal blooming’ presents another technical hurdle for LDEWs. This effect, where the laser beam heats the air along its path, causing it to defocus, is particularly problematic when engaging targets head-on. The stationary beam in such engagements exacerbates thermal blooming, reducing the weapon’s effectiveness. However, engaging moving targets can somewhat mitigate this issue, as the beam’s movement reduces the localized heating effect.

Countermeasures against LDEWs are evolving, with adversaries developing techniques to diminish their effectiveness. Smoke and obscurants can scatter and weaken laser beams, although their utility is often limited in naval environments. More sophisticated countermeasures involve the use of heat-resistant materials or ablative coatings that can absorb or reflect the laser’s energy, protecting the target. The effectiveness of these countermeasures will likely increase as laser power escalates, challenging the dominance of LDEWs in future combat scenarios.

Future Prospects and Strategic Implications

As the technology matures, the role of LDEWs in military strategy will continue to evolve. The ongoing advancements in laser power and targeting precision promise to enhance their effectiveness, potentially offsetting some of the current limitations. However, the arms race in countermeasures will also intensify, with adversaries seeking innovative ways to protect against laser attacks.

The strategic integration of LDEWs into existing weapon systems will be crucial. These weapons are expected to complement, rather than replace, conventional arms in the arsenal of warships and other military platforms. The combined use of lasers, missiles, and guns will likely become a standard doctrine in future warfare, offering a balanced and flexible approach to combat engagements.

Supersonic and Hypersonic Missile Defense: Challenges and Strategies in Laser-Directed Energy Weapons Integration

The advent of supersonic and hypersonic missiles has reshaped the landscape of modern warfare, presenting formidable challenges to existing defense systems. These advanced missiles, capable of traveling at speeds exceeding Mach 5, are not only fast but also highly maneuverable, which complicates interception efforts. The development of these missiles has been rapid, with several nations investing heavily in their research and production.

The Evolution of Supersonic and Hypersonic Missiles

Supersonic missiles, traveling at speeds ranging from Mach 1 to Mach 5, have been in use for decades, with notable examples including the American Tomahawk cruise missile and the Russian Kh-31. However, the real game-changer has been the development of hypersonic missiles, which travel at speeds greater than Mach 5. These missiles, such as Russia’s Avangard and China’s DF-17, have pushed the boundaries of missile technology, featuring advanced propulsion systems like scramjets that allow continuous acceleration through the atmosphere.

The United States has not been left behind in this race. The AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) is an example of America’s response to the hypersonic challenge. Announced to have reached hypersonic speeds during tests, the ARRW underscores the rapid pace of hypersonic technology development.

Challenges to Laser-Directed Energy Weapons (LDEWs)

The rise of supersonic and hypersonic missiles poses a significant challenge to Laser-Directed Energy Weapons (LDEWs). LDEWs, which work by focusing high-energy laser beams on targets to damage or destroy them, require precision tracking and sustained energy application to be effective. The extreme speeds and maneuverability of hypersonic missiles, combined with their advanced thermal shielding, diminish the effectiveness of LDEWs.

Thermal shielding is particularly problematic for LDEWs. Hypersonic missiles are equipped with materials designed to withstand the intense heat generated by air friction at high speeds. This thermal protection not only helps the missile maintain its structural integrity but also reduces the efficacy of laser-based attacks, which rely on heat generation to damage their targets.

Strategic Implications and Defense Innovations

The strategic implications of hypersonic missile development are profound. Their ability to penetrate conventional missile defenses, owing to their speed and maneuverability, grants a significant advantage to the possessing nation, potentially altering the balance of power in global military affairs.

In response, defense researchers and engineers are exploring innovative solutions to counter the hypersonic threat. One approach is the development of more powerful and precise LDEWs, capable of delivering higher energy levels to overcome the thermal protections of hypersonic missiles. Additionally, there is an emphasis on improving target acquisition and tracking systems, allowing LDEWs to lock onto and engage these fast-moving targets more effectively.

The integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning into missile defense systems is another area of focus. These technologies can enhance the speed and accuracy of threat detection and interception, crucial factors in countering hypersonic missiles.

Collaborative Efforts and Future Directions

Recognizing the magnitude of the hypersonic threat, nations are collaborating on research and development efforts to enhance their defense capabilities. The United States, for example, has engaged in partnerships with allies and private sector entities to accelerate the development of effective countermeasures.

Looking ahead, the continued evolution of hypersonic missile technology and countermeasures is expected. The dynamic nature of this technological race necessitates ongoing research, development, and strategic planning to ensure national defense mechanisms remain effective against emerging threats.

TABLE 1 – Analyzing the Dynamic Interplay Between Laser-Directed Energy Weapons and Hypersonic Missiles

The interaction between Laser-Directed Energy Weapons (LDEWs) and supersonic or hypersonic missiles involves complex physical and technological challenges. Here’s a detailed analysis, focusing on the aspects of tracking, sustained energy application, speed and maneuverability of the missiles, and the impact of thermal shielding:

Laser Operation and Characteristics

  • Power Output: Military-grade LDEWs typically operate in the range of 50 to 300 kilowatts (kW) for effective target engagement. However, to counter hypersonic threats, power levels may need to exceed 1 megawatt (MW) to achieve the necessary damage threshold. For instance, the U.S. Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS) operates at about 30 kW, while future systems like the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) aim for 60 to 150 kW.
  • Beam Focus and Energy Concentration: The laser beam must be precisely focused to concentrate energy on a small area of the target. For a laser with a 100 kW power output, if the beam is focused to a spot size of approximately 10 cm², the energy density would be 1,000 kW/m². The time to maintain the beam on target for effective damage (thermal ablation) can range from a few seconds to tens of seconds, depending on the target’s resilience and distance.

Hypersonic Missile Characteristics

  • Speed and Thermal Environment: Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5 (approximately 6,174 km/h or 3,836 mph). At these speeds, the friction with the atmosphere generates surface temperatures ranging from 2,000 to 3,000°C (3,632 to 5,432°F) on the missile’s skin.
  • Thermal Shielding: The missiles are equipped with advanced thermal protection systems (TPS) like reinforced carbon-carbon or ceramic matrix composites, capable of withstanding temperatures up to 4,500°C (8,132°F). These materials are designed to absorb, distribute, and reflect intense heat.

Interaction of LDEW with Hypersonic Missile

  • Energy Absorption and Heat Dissipation: When a laser beam strikes the missile, the TPS absorbs significant energy. For a laser emitting 100 kW, if the missile’s surface absorbs 80% of the energy and reflects 20%, it means 80 kW is absorbed and used in heating the material. If the heat is distributed across a surface area of 1 m², the increase in temperature will depend on the material’s specific heat capacity and thermal conductivity.
  • Reflectivity and Emissivity: The effectiveness of a laser strike also depends on the reflectivity and emissivity of the missile’s thermal shielding. A material with high reflectivity (e.g., 20% or higher) can significantly reduce the net energy absorbed. Additionally, materials with high emissivity can radiate away the absorbed heat effectively, further reducing the impact of the laser’s thermal load.
  • Laser Interaction Time: The duration for which the laser can maintain its focus on the missile is crucial. For example, if a 100 kW laser can maintain its focus on a moving hypersonic missile for 5 seconds, the total energy delivered would be 500 kilojoules (kJ). However, given the missile’s high speed and evasive capabilities, maintaining focus for this duration is technically challenging.

Precision Tracking and Sustained Energy Application

  • Tracking Challenges: LDEWs need to precisely track and focus on a target to deliver the energy required to damage or destroy it. Hypersonic missiles, traveling at speeds exceeding Mach 5, cover large distances in seconds. This high speed significantly reduces the reaction time for LDEWs to lock onto and track the missile. The targeting system must process data, predict the missile’s path, and adjust the laser beam’s aim almost instantaneously, a formidable challenge given the speeds involved.
  • Sustained Energy Application: To effectively damage a target, LDEWs must maintain their beam on a specific point of the target for a certain duration. Given the high speeds of hypersonic missiles, maintaining a laser beam on a small, rapidly moving target long enough to inflict damage becomes increasingly difficult. The missile’s high speed means that it constantly moves out of the laser’s focus area, requiring constant beam readjustment and making sustained energy application challenging.

Speed and Maneuverability of Hypersonic Missiles

  • Extreme Speeds: The sheer speed of hypersonic missiles means they can close the distance to their targets much faster than subsonic or supersonic counterparts, leaving less time for LDEWs to detect, track, aim, and fire at them. The speed also means that the relative motion between the missile and the laser beam is so high that even slight delays or inaccuracies in tracking can lead to a miss.
  • Maneuverability: Hypersonic missiles are not just fast; they are also highly maneuverable, capable of unpredictable, rapid changes in direction. This maneuverability makes it even more difficult for LDEWs to maintain a lock on the target, as the prediction models used to anticipate the missile’s path can be quickly outdated by a sudden maneuver.

Thermal Shielding and LDEW Effectiveness

  • High Thermal Resistance: Hypersonic missiles are equipped with advanced thermal shielding to withstand the extreme heat generated by air friction at hypersonic speeds. This shielding is designed to absorb, reflect, or dissipate high amounts of thermal energy, protecting the missile’s internal components and maintaining its structural integrity.
  • Impact on Laser Weapons: LDEWs operate by concentrating intense laser energy on a target to heat it rapidly, causing structural damage or detonation. However, the thermal shielding on hypersonic missiles is capable of withstanding or mitigating the heat effects of lasers. The protective materials can absorb the laser’s energy, distribute it across a larger area, or reflect it away, diminishing the laser’s ability to impart sufficient heat to damage the missile effectively.

In summary, the challenges LDEWs face against supersonic and hypersonic missiles are multifaceted, involving issues of rapid and precise tracking, maintaining sustained focus of high-energy beams, and overcoming the protective measures like advanced thermal shielding that are designed to negate the effects of high-energy laser systems.

Future Potential of DragonFire: Advancements and Implications in Military Technology

The DragonFire project, a technological endeavor aiming to revolutionize modern warfare, stands at a pivotal juncture in its development. As a technology demonstrator, DragonFire exemplifies the potential for laser-directed energy weapons (LDEWs) in military applications. However, its journey from a demonstrator to an operational capability is contingent upon several advancements and considerations.

Technical Overview and Current Status

DragonFire, as it stands, is a 50kw-class laser weapon system that has garnered attention for its scalability and adaptability. The system primarily comprises commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components, which, while effective for demonstration purposes, necessitate upgrades to military specifications (MOTS) for operational deployment. The transition from COTS to MOTS involves enhancing the durability, reliability, and performance of the components to meet stringent military requirements.

The core of DragonFire’s design allows for power scalability, enabling adjustments in its output to suit varying mission needs. This flexibility is crucial for adapting the system to different platforms and operational scenarios. At its current stage, DragonFire includes a beam director mounted on the upper deck, which is a critical component for targeting and directing the laser beam.

Integration and Space Requirements

For shipboard installation, DragonFire’s space and integration requirements are notable. The system necessitates an area equivalent to a shipping container below deck to house the laser source and electronic equipment. This requirement underscores the need for careful planning in the integration of LDEWs into existing naval platforms. Furthermore, integration with the ship’s combat system is imperative to ensure seamless operation and effectiveness in combat scenarios.

The electrical power demand for LDEWs like DragonFire is often a topic of debate. While these systems require significant power, especially for peak demands, the solution lies in either dedicated battery banks or large capacitors. Notably, post-PIP Type 45 destroyers and Type 26 frigates are assessed to have adequate spare power generation capacity to support a system like DragonFire, at least within the 50kw class range.

A significant advantage of LDEWs, including DragonFire, is their non-interfering nature with the ship’s radar and electronic warfare systems. This attribute ensures that the deployment of such weapons does not compromise the existing defense mechanisms of the platform.

Advancements and Future Prospects

The DF consortium, responsible for DragonFire’s development, expresses confidence in the potential to significantly reduce the weight and space requirements of the system based on the desired laser power. This optimism is not unfounded, given the ongoing advancements in laser technology and materials science. The ability to minimize the system’s footprint would not only enhance its integration into naval platforms but also open avenues for its deployment on ground and airborne systems.

For the army, mounting LDEWs on fighting vehicles presents a strategic advantage, offering a new dimension to ground combat. The prospect of an airborne version of DragonFire, possibly integrated into future platforms like GCAP/Tempest, further highlights the system’s versatility and potential to redefine aerial warfare.

Implications for Military Technology

The development and potential operationalization of DragonFire signify a shift in military paradigms. LDEWs, with their precision, scalability, and non-interference properties, offer a glimpse into the future of warfare where energy weapons play a pivotal role. The integration of such systems across naval, ground, and aerial platforms would not only enhance defensive and offensive capabilities but also lead to strategic advantages in modern combat scenarios.

The journey of DragonFire from a technology demonstrator to an operational weapon system encapsulates the broader narrative of military technology evolution. As defense entities and consortia like DF push the boundaries of what is technologically feasible, the future of military engagements appears increasingly reliant on advanced, scalable, and versatile weapon systems like DragonFire.

Into the Hands of Operators: Navigating the Future of Naval Defence with LDEWs

The Drive for Enhanced Naval Defenses

Recent naval combat experiences in the Red Sea and the Black Sea have underscored the urgent need for advanced defensive measures against the rising threat of uncrewed air and surface vehicles. The incident involving the Italian warship ITS Caio Duilio, which neutralized a Houthi drone using its Strales 76mm Super-Rapid guns, illustrates the evolving nature of naval threats and the necessity for effective countermeasures. The Royal Navy (RN), awaiting the arrival of Type 31 frigates with modern armaments, currently faces a capability gap, relying on less optimal solutions like expensive missiles or engaging at closer ranges with 30mm ASCG or Phalanx systems.

DragonFire’s Role and Potential

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has been somewhat reticent about the specific target sets against which DragonFire has been tested. However, it is inferred that the system successfully engaged an ‘aerial target,’ likely a Banshee Jet 80 target drone. This achievement is significant, given the drone’s resemblance in size to the Iranian attack drones used by the Houthis, signaling that UK Laser-Directed Energy Weapons (LDEWs) are nearing a stage where they can serve as a formidable defense layer against Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for warships.

Facing budget constraints, the RN might soon have to choose between investing in LDEWs or traditional gun systems to counter such threats. LDEWs, while promising, still carry the perception of being futuristic and untested compared to the immediate reliability of modern gun systems equipped with advanced air-burst ammunition.

Strategic Implications and Investment Considerations

As defense technologies evolve, the maritime domain is likely to be the first to adopt LDEWs, given their potential for long-term strategic advantages. While conventional gun systems currently offer a safe choice for short-to-medium range defense, the strategic impetus leans towards accelerating the development and deployment of LDEWs. Achieving parity with, or gaining an advantage over, peer competitors necessitates a forward-thinking approach in defense strategy.

Looking ahead, LDEWs, although requiring significantly more power than systems like DragonFire currently offer, are poised to become a pivotal solution against advanced threats, including ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The path to realizing this potential is fraught with challenges, notably the historical hesitancy in the British defense industry to invest in and operationalize innovative solutions.

U.S. Department of Defense Directed Energy Programs

DEW FY24 Budget Information

The Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) President’s Budget Request for Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) stands at $917.2 million, underscoring the Department of Defense’s (DoD) intensified focus on these futuristic armaments. This budget allocation spans various sectors, including Science and Technology (S&T), system and defense technology development, industrial base efforts, and testing and evaluation investments. It encapsulates the collective endeavors of the military services, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office, the Joint Directed Energy Transition Office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Special Operations Command, and the Test Resource Management Center.

The Army’s Leading Role

Interviews with key stakeholders reveal that the Army is at the forefront of DEW production readiness, as mirrored in the budget requisition. The Army’s budget for Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT&E) for the Indirect Fire Protection Capability High Energy Laser (IFPC HEL) has been adjusted to $85.852 million for FY24, down from $215.343 million in FY23. Similarly, the IFPC High Power Microwave (HPM) program sees a reduction to $11.166 million from the previous $42.977 million, indicating a shift from engineering and integration phases to prototype integration and delivery. Notably, the IFPC HPM system shares commonalities with other services’ efforts.

The DE Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) program, earmarked at $110.625 million for FY24 (down from $197.279 million in FY23), is transitioning from prototyping to production, with a projected handover to the M-SHORAD Product Office in FY25. The Army is also investing in bolstering the defense industrial base to facilitate these advancements.

The Navy’s RDT&E Focus

The Navy’s budget request for FY24 includes a significant RDT&E allocation of $52.129 million towards its Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems technology Program Element. This funding aims to propel the transition from S&T research to the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction Phase, subsequently leading to acquisition initiation. Challenges such as atmospheric propagation characterization, beam control, engagement modeling, lethality assessment, and the conceptualization of laser weapons operations (CONOPS) are central to the Navy’s focus. Additionally, operational and maintenance support, including repair parts procurement and cybersecurity enhancements, is prioritized.

The HELIOS program integration, part of the Navy’s SSL Technology Maturation initiative, reportedly faces delays, necessitating extended support and coordination. Like the Army, the Navy is dedicated to nurturing the defense industrial base, which is critical for sustaining technological momentum.

The Air Force’s DEW Strategy

The Air Force’s approach to integrating DEWs within its operational framework is reflective of its minimal prototyping budget of $1.246 million in the FY24 request. With a larger allocation of $129.961 million, the focus is on evaluating the compatibility of DEWs with Air Force operational needs and developing countermeasures against such weapons.

Special Operations Command and DARPA Initiatives

The Special Operations Command has allocated $3 million to finalize flight test activities and showcase a High Energy Laser (HEL) system on the AC-130J for special operations. DARPA’s budget request for FY24 stands at $37 million, targeting potential DEW applications. Key programs include the Waveform Agile-Radio-frequency Directed Energy (WARDEN) and Humboldt, with budget requests of $20 million and $17 million, respectively. WARDEN aims to enhance the range and lethality of High Power Microwave (HPM) systems through innovative broadband HPM amplifiers and waveform techniques. The Humboldt program, building on WARDEN’s groundwork, focuses on developing DE devices that can disrupt electronic systems.

Missile Defense Agency’s Developments

Although the MDA has not requested RDT&E funding for DEWs in the FY24 budget, noteworthy developments include the completion of its Directed Energy Demonstrator Development project. This initiative is transitioning laser technology from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to industry, evaluating laser weapons for enhancing the Missile Defense System’s layered defense capability, and advancing prototype development, including a direct diode laser and a domestic battery-based power supply suitable for all ground and ship DEW systems.

Following the October 2023 invasion of Israel by Hamas, the Biden administration proposed $1.2 billion in RDT&E funding for the Iron Beam project. This funding, if approved, would mark a significant U.S. investment in enhancing Israel’s DEW capabilities, showcasing the strategic importance of DEWs in contemporary defense strategies.

Navy Initiatives

ProgramKilowattHEL/HPMDescriptionRecent Activity
Laser Weapon System (LAWS)30HEL  C-UASTemporarily installed on the USS Ponce (2014)
Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN)50  UnknownN/A (Dazzler)  C-UASFirst installed on the USS Dewey (2020). There are eight total ODINs installed on eight DDG destroyers
Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) Program53150HELProduced Laser Weapons System Demonstrator: employed for C-UAS, Close-in defense and counter-ISRLaser transported from Redondo Beach, CA, to San Diego, CA, for installation on the USS Portland (2019). Operational Test occurred 2020, scheduled for de-installation in 2023
Ruggedized High Energy Laser (RHEL)57150HELLaser architecture to pursue incremental increased capabilityInitiative Complete
Surface Naval Laser Weapon System (HELIOS project)6160-150HEL + DazzlerC-UAS, counter-ISRExpected sea trials Fall 2023, Expected operational FY 2023
Layered Laser Defense65 (LLD)N/AHELClose-in Defense, Counter-Cruise Missile (C-CM) C-UAS, C-ISR66Successful test to defeat a target representing a subsonic cruise missile in flight occurred February 2022
High Energy Laser Counter-Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Program (ASCM) (HELCAP)68300+HELAnti-Ship Cruise Missile70Currently underway; Testing in maritime environment (at Point Mugu and San Nicholas Island)’24-‘25
Bane72N/AHPMNo public information availableNo public information available

USMC Initiatives

ProgramKilowattHEL/HPMDescriptionRecent Activity
  Compact Laser Weapon System (CLaWS)  2, 5, 10HELC-sUAS75Prototype testing reported 201976

Army Initiatives

ProgramKilowattHEL/HPMDescriptionRecent Activity
Mobile Expeditionary High Energy Laser (MEHEL)772, 5, 10    HELC-UAS 2.0 Version tested at White Sands Missile Range in 2017, operational testing in 2018. Funding awarded to scale to 50 kw in 2019
High Energy Laser Mobile Test Truck (HELMTT)8210, 50-58HELC-UAS, M-SHORAD
Test for larger or smaller scaled system
Tested at White Sands Missile Range 2019
High Energy Laser Test Vehicle Demonstrator (HELTVD)86100, 300HELAir Defense, C-UASransition to Valkyrie program in 2022
Directed Energy Maneuver Short Air Range Defense (DE M-SHORAD)9150HELC-UAS, C-RAMArmy Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) recently delivered four DE M-SHORAD systems to the 4th Battalion, 60th Air Defense Artillery Regiment at Fort Sill. Will transition to M-SHORAD Product Office in FY25
Valkyrie Program96 (IFPC-HEL)250-300HELC-RAM/C-UAS98Four prototypes due in FY 202499
Palletized High Energy Laser (P-HEL)10010, 20HELC-UASWill integrate P-HEL into Infantry Squad Vehicles. First deployed operational HEL C-UAS capability
Leonidas Program (IFPC-HPM)104HPMHPMC-UASGround-based Leonidas system unveiled in 2020; selected by RCCTO January 2023
High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative (HELSI)108300, 500 kwHELM-SHORAD
Counter-Cruise Missile Power scaling demonstrator
Delivered 300 KW laser to DoD for Indirect Fire Protection Capability High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL), announced push for 500 kw in 2023 and 1 MW HELs in 2026
Directed Energy Interceptor for Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense System (DEIMOS)11350 kwHELM-SHORAD  Successful laser demonstration (2023)

Air Force Initiatives

ProgramKilowattHEL/HPMDescriptionRecent Activity
Active Denial System (ADS) N/AHPMAnti-Personnel, Area DenialOperational systems developed.
Research continues
Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP)N/AHPMElectronic WarfareUnknown
High Power Joint Electromagnetic Non-Kinetic Strike (HiJENKS)N/AHPMElectronic WarfareTesting summer 2022
Phaser High Power Microwave System N/AHPMC-UASThe Air Force purchased one prototype for $16.28M in 2019.
Field testing announced to end by Dec. 20, 2020
Tactical High Power Microwave Operational Responder (Mjölnir)N/AHPMC-UASContract for Mjolnir Awarded in February 2022.
Dynamic test of THOR occurred May 2023
Counter-Electronic High Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Defense (CHIMERA)N/AHPMExtended-Range Air Base Defense (C-UAS)Contract awarded in 2020, further testing planned.Dynamic testing may have occurred previously
Self-Protect High- Energy Laser Demonstrator (ShiELD)50+HELAirborne C-RAM  Prototype tested, first flight test expected in FY 2024
Hybrid Aero-Effect Reducing Design with Realistic Optical Components (HARDROC) (supports ShiELD)N/AHPMProof of Concept from Airborne HELFlight test May 2023
High-Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS)10HEL  C-UASFourth system was delivered for field evaluation in June 2023

U.S. Special Operations Command Initiatives

ProgramKilowattHEL/HPMDescriptionRecent Activity
Airborne High Energy Laser (A-HEL)60HELOffensive Electronic Warfare and Counter- Cruise MissileWill complete flight test activities and demonstration of a HEL system on the AC-130J in FY24

DARPA Initiatives

ProgramHEL/HPMDescriptionOwnerRecent Activity
Modular Efficient Laser Technology (MELT)HELImprovement of beam quality, creating more scalable devices  DARPAResearch, Testing and Evaluation in Progress, Completion expected October FY 2024
Waveform Agile-Radio- frequency Directed Energy (WARDEN) HPM  Improvement of lethality and ranged attack  DARPAFY23 Plans: Develop high current electron gun and high power, broadband amplifier designs and verify them through 3D simulation
HumboldtHPM    Counter Electronic    DARPAFY23 Plans: Develop initial designs of prototype proof-of-concept devices. Characterize the baseline performance of critical materials.
FY24 Plans: Demonstrate effectiveness of the proof-of-concept devices on electronic systems

Foreign Directed Energy Programs

Chinese Directed Energy Programs

China’s engagement with Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) traces back to the 1980s, marking a long-standing commitment to advancing this technology. Despite skepticism around the veracity of its claims, China’s steady progress in the DEW domain is undeniable.

ProgramEnergy and TypeDescription
LW-3030 KW HELC-UAS weapon
Low Altitude Guardian10 KW HELC-UAS weapon, 1-2 mile range
Silent Hunter30 KW HELTruck-mounted C-UAS, 2½ mile range.
ZM-8715 mW HELBlinding device
BBQ-905200 mJ HELHandheld anti-ISR sensors
WB-1HPMAnti-personnel Area Denial, up to 1km range
Unknown name1 MW Pulse LaserOn-orbit ASAT

Developments and Capabilities

Reports suggest that China has achieved significant milestones in DEW technology. One notable claim is the development of a 1-megawatt pulse laser, potent enough for deployment on a small satellite. This innovation hints at China’s capability to harness substantial power outputs for its DEWs, surpassing global benchmarks. The country is also rumored to possess lasers capable of delivering power output exceeding ten times that of the largest nuclear power plants.

China’s DEW arsenal reportedly includes both vehicle-mounted and handheld systems, showcasing a broad spectrum of operational flexibility. The LW-30, a 30-kilowatt High Energy Laser (HEL) system, epitomizes China’s prowess in vehicle-mounted DEWs. Designed for anti-drone engagements, the LW-30 can target drones flying at altitudes below one kilometer and speeds around 200 kilometers per hour, even those with a radar cross-section smaller than one square meter.

Prior to the LW-30, China tested the Low Altitude Guardian system, a 10-kilowatt DEW with a range of up to 2 miles, focusing on similar targets. Another significant development is the Silent Hunter, a truck-mounted counter-Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) boasting a 30-kilowatt output and a 4-kilometer range, underscoring China’s strategic focus on anti-drone warfare.

In the realm of handheld DEWs, the ZM-87 was one of China’s early ventures, equipped with a 15-milliwatt neodymium laser capable of causing permanent eye damage over distances up to 3 miles. Although now banned, this device highlights China’s exploration of portable DEW solutions. The BBQ-905, another handheld device, targets electronic sensors with bursts of two hundred millijoules over a kilometer, emphasizing China’s interest in disrupting enemy electronics.

High Power Microwave (HPM) Weapons

China’s advancements extend into High Power Microwave (HPM) weapons, with the WB-1 system mirroring the U.S. Active Denial System (ADS) in concept. This anti-personnel area-denial weapon reportedly has been considered for use in border disputes with India, indicating its operational readiness and strategic applications.

Reports from 2018 suggest that Chinese destroyers may already be equipped with operational DEW systems, demonstrating the integration of these weapons into China’s naval capabilities. The potential focus of future Chinese DEW development could be to counterbalance U.S. space superiority through asymmetric strategies, including space-based DEWs.

Space-Based DEWs and Budget Implications

The prospect of space-based DEWs remains speculative, yet China’s substantial civil space budget of $8.9 billion could significantly accelerate DEW miniaturization and energy source advancements. These developments are crucial for the successful deployment of DEWs in space, signaling China’s intent to strengthen its position in space warfare and DEW technologies.

Russian Directed Energy Programs

Russia’s journey into Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) technology commenced alongside the United States in the 1960s. Despite an early start, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the suspension of many DEW initiatives, causing a significant slowdown in development. However, the groundwork laid during this period has not been in vain, as Russia continues to advance its DEW capabilities, with a particular focus on systems that can counter U.S. space assets.

ProgramEnergy and TypeDescription
PeresvetHELGround-based blinding ASAT
KalinaHELGround-based blinding ASAT
Sokol-EchelonHELAirborne ASAT
Zadira222HELC-UAS, possible anti- personnel or counterbattery applications, claimed 3-mile range

Current Capabilities and Developments

Ground-Based ASAT Systems

Russia has demonstrated progress in ground-based Anti-Satellite (ASAT) DEWs, notably through the Peresvet system. Deployed within five Russian strategic missile divisions, possibly including units in Ukraine, Peresvet’s primary function is to disable the optical tracking systems of drones and satellites, effectively concealing missile operations. This system underscores Russia’s strategic emphasis on neutralizing space-based reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities.

The Kalina laser, a newer development within the Krona space surveillance complex, extends Russia’s ASAT capabilities. Similar to Peresvet, Kalina aims to disrupt satellite functions, reinforcing Russia’s focus on undermining space-based observational assets.

Airborne ASAT Systems

In addition to ground-based systems, Russia is venturing into airborne ASAT capabilities with the Sokol-Echelon project. This initiative proposes mounting the 1LK222 laser system on an A-60 aircraft to target and disable sensors on reconnaissance satellites. This development indicates a strategic move towards versatile, airborne DEW platforms.

High Power Microwave (HPM) Weapons

Russia’s exploration of High Power Microwave (HPM) technology can be traced back to the Cold War era, with incidents like the Moscow Signal suggesting early experimentation with microwave weapons. Recent speculations point towards efforts to equip sixth-generation combat drones with microwave weaponry, signifying an ongoing interest in HPM systems as a component of advanced warfare strategies.

Challenges and Perceptions

While certain Russian DEWs, like Peresvet, have been officially acknowledged and deployed, the existence and capabilities of others, such as the Zadira, remain speculative and unverified. Claims of the Zadira’s operational use in Ukraine, boasting the ability to incinerate targets within five seconds at distances up to three miles, have not been corroborated by the U.S. or its allies, leading to skepticism about its operational status.

Funding and Future Prospects

Compared to the substantial investments by the U.S. and China in DEW technologies, Russia’s financial commitment appears limited. However, a Defense Intelligence Agency report suggests that despite these budgetary constraints, Russia might be on track to deploy DEWs capable of damaging satellites by the mid-to-late 2020s. This projection indicates a focused strategy to develop niche capabilities, particularly in ASAT technologies, to counterbalance the more extensive space and DEW initiatives of its global rivals.

Critical Raw Materials for Overlapping Components

High-Energy Laser (HEL) and High-Powered Microwave (HPM) weapon systems, though uniquely designed for specific operational roles, share a fundamental requirement for robust power sources. The intricacies of these systems, particularly the power supply component, reveal a significant dependence on critical raw materials. This dependency is not only a technological concern but also a strategic and geopolitical issue, given the global distribution of these resources.

Critical Materials Risk Assessment

MaterialsTop ProducersVulnerabilityExplanation
Rare Earth ElementsChina, U.S., Australia REDChina dominates mining and processing.
SiliconU.S., Norway, Brazil, Russia, China YELLOWThis is a highly diverse supply chain with Canada and other friendly countries contributing to most U.S. imports.
GalliumChina, Canada,, Japan, Russia, South Korea, United States REDThe U.S. depends on China for a majority of imports, and China has added new export controls.
GermaniumChina, Canada, Russia, Finland, United States  REDA large reliance on China for imports which may be affected by new export controls.
Barium TitanateChina, India, Morocco, United States  YELLOWReliance on Chinese imports and hydrocarbon industry demands increase vulnerability.
AluminumChina, India, Russia, Canada 
Half of U.S. imports are from an ally.
AmmoniaChina, Russia, United States, India 
U.S. industry is growing and decreasing import needs.
CopperChile, Peru, Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, United States  YELLOWDomestic ore refining and processing difficulties and U.S. domestic permitting challenges may allow China to dominate the market.
LithiumAustralia, Chile, China, Argentina  REDRaw lithium is sourced from Argentina and Chile, but the majority of lithium-ion batteries are imported from China.
GraphiteChina, Madagascar, Mozambique, Brazil  YELLOW  China dominates the industry with increasing growth in U.S. capabilities.
NickelIndonesia, Philippines, Russia, New Caledonia  YELLOWU.S. imports from friendly nations, but China has the most processing capabilities.
ManganeseSouth Africa, Gabon, Australia, China 
  Current supply is stable due to strong demand in the steel industry.
Green generally represents a healthy mix of domestic producers and/or imports from allies and partners. Yellow represents some level of vulnerability due to factors such as limited suppliers, ongoing or anticipated supply disruptions, etc. Red represents clear, significant vulnerabilities. Vulnerability designation was determined based on the following factors: Does mining and/or processing occur in China (or under Chinese control)? (negative) Does mining and/or processing occur in Russia (or under Russian control)? (negative) Does mining and/or processing occur in a volatile region? (negative) Does mining and/or processing occur in a stable region and is controlled by a US ally or partner? (generally positive) Does the US import from a stable region? (positive) Does the US import from an ally or partner? (positive) Is the US the largest producer? (positive) If the US is not the largest producer, does the US produce enough domestically to meet demand? (positive) Are there significant market shifts occurring or are likely to occur? (negative or positive depending on context)

Critical Minerals Commodity Supply Risk Assessment

Note: The disruption potential (horizontal axis), economic vulnerability (vertical axis), and trade exposure (point size) are the inputs used by the USGS to calculate the overall supply risk.

Power Source Dynamics in Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs)

Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs), encompassing HEL and HPM systems, predominantly utilize commercially available lithium-ion batteries. These batteries must meet stringent defense standards, reflecting the high energy density and reliability required for military applications. The critical raw materials in these batteries—lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and manganese—play pivotal roles in their performance.

The U.S. military’s reliance on Chinese-sourced lithium-ion batteries is a significant strategic concern. While the U.S. has the capability to produce these batteries domestically, the cost implications and the current underutilization of domestic production facilities, operating at merely 10% capacity, present economic and logistical challenges. The DEW market, being a minor segment of the broader battery demand spectrum, does not by itself stimulate substantial domestic production. Therefore, the integration and coordination of power requirements for DEW applications with other sectors and governmental entities, especially the Department of Energy, are crucial for enhancing domestic battery production capabilities.

Lithium: A Cornerstone of DEW Power

Lithium’s paramount importance in DEW systems stems from its high efficiency and ability to provide stable power amidst drastic fluctuations. The U.S. faces a strategic challenge in lithium procurement, with the majority sourced internationally and a solitary commercial-scale production facility within its borders as of 2023. The burgeoning electric vehicle market exacerbates the competition for lithium, further straining the Department of Defense’s (DoD) access to this vital resource.

From 2018 to 2021, over 90% of U.S. lithium imports originated from Argentina and Chile, yet the dependency on Chinese-manufactured lithium-ion batteries remains predominant. China’s stronghold over the global battery production, along with its significant share in cathode and anode production, underscores a critical supply chain vulnerability. The DoD’s initiative, including a $90 million Defense Production Act (DPA) agreement with Albemarle, signifies a strategic move to mitigate this dependency by fostering domestic lithium production. However, the full fruition of these efforts, with production anticipated to commence between 2025 and 2030, remains to be seen.

Graphite: The Conductive Backbone

Graphite’s dual metallic and non-metallic properties make it invaluable in energy storage, particularly in lithium-ion batteries. Its exceptional conductivity enhances battery performance, underscoring its significance beyond the cathode materials like cobalt and nickel. The global demand for graphite is on the rise, driven by the lithium-ion battery sector and renewable energy initiatives.

China’s dominance in graphite production and recent export restrictions pose a strategic risk to DEW supply chains. The U.S. reliance on synthetic graphite, derived from high-temperature processing of carbon materials, accentuates the need for secure and sustainable natural graphite sources. Initiatives by the U.S. Department of Energy and DoD to boost domestic graphite production, including significant investments in domestic refining and potential mining developments, are steps toward reducing dependency on foreign supplies.

Nickel and Manganese: Essential yet Vulnerable

Nickel, vital for high-performance lithium-ion batteries and energy storage in defense applications, is another critical material where the U.S. faces supply chain vulnerabilities. Although the U.S. imports a significant portion of its nickel from stable partners like Canada, the global nickel processing market is largely influenced by Chinese investments. This dependency introduces potential risks in the supply chain that need vigilant monitoring.

Manganese, predominantly used in the steel industry, is also crucial for lithium-ion batteries. The U.S.’s total reliance on imports for manganese, mainly from African countries, could become a strategic concern. While the current supply chain is stable due to robust demand from the steel industry, the geopolitical landscape and market dynamics could shift, necessitating a reevaluation of supply strategies.

Strategic Implications and Future Directions

The reliance on critical raw materials for DEW systems highlights a broader strategic vulnerability within the defense sector. The concentrated supply chains, particularly with significant dependencies on China, pose potential risks that could affect the operational readiness and strategic autonomy of the U.S. military. Diversifying these supply chains, increasing domestic production capabilities, and enhancing international partnerships are pivotal to mitigating these risks.

Future strategies should focus on sustainable and secure sourcing of these materials, leveraging technological advancements and recycling initiatives to reduce dependency on volatile international markets. The coordination among military, industrial, and governmental entities will be crucial in establishing a resilient supply chain that supports the evolving needs of directed energy weapons systems and broader defense technological imperatives.

Foreign Influence and Adversarial Capital in Directed Energy Supply Chains

The interplay of foreign influence and adversarial capital within the U.S. directed energy (DEW) supply chains has garnered attention due to its implications on national security. The 2023 National Security Scorecard by Govini, leveraging its AI platform, provides a quantitative analysis of the U.S.-China technological and industrial competition, highlighting vulnerabilities in emerging technologies like directed energy.

Govini’s Insights on DEW Supply Chains

Govini’s analysis unearthed concerning trends in the DEW supply chain, underscoring the pervasive reach of Chinese influence. Between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, 379 unique Chinese tier 1 and 2 suppliers were identified within the DEW supply chain, with four classified as prohibited. The involvement of Chinese investment entities such as Yonjin Venture, Huami, Amperex Technologies, Sig China (Sig Asia Investments), and Chengwei Capital in U.S. directed energy startups is notable. These entities not only funded these startups across various funding rounds but also entrenched themselves within the DEW ecosystem. The allocation of moderate to high risk scores to key companies within the DEW supply chain, combined with their substantial foreign revenue and reliance on Chinese suppliers, highlights the extent of foreign influence and the potential risks to U.S. national security.

Key Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

The vulnerabilities within the DEW supply chains, especially in high-energy lasers (HEL) and high power microwaves (HPM), are multifaceted and complex. These vulnerabilities, while partially exposed during the ETI-led working groups and interviews, offer a glimpse into the broader challenges faced by the DEW sector.

High Power Microwaves (HPM) Vulnerabilities

The HPM segment, integral to both commercial and defense sectors, is plagued by vulnerabilities across its supply chain. Key challenges include the availability of electronic components such as semiconductors and integrated circuits, exacerbated by long lead times and global production capacity constraints. Gallium nitride (GaN) devices, essential for high power amplification in solid-state HPMs, and specialized magnets critical to HPM systems, are areas of concern due to limited supplier bases and potential supply disruptions.

High Energy Lasers (HEL) Vulnerabilities

The HEL supply chain is characterized by its reliance on sole, single, and limited suppliers for critical components:

  • Sole Source: Beam dumps, essential for HEL testing, are produced by only one company in Israel, causing significant production delays.
  • Single Source: Ceramic laser materials for HELs, diffraction gratings, and fused silica are sourced from single suppliers in Japan and Germany, respectively, indicating a narrow supply base and little incentive for market expansion.
  • Limited Suppliers: The supply chain for beam directors and optical components such as large primary mirrors, gimbals, and adaptive optics for HEL systems suffers from extremely limited supplier diversity. This limitation is compounded by the small market size for DEW components, high precision requirements, and lengthy lead times.

Additionally, the specialized nature of coatings for high-energy laser optics and the niche market for specialty optical fibers for DEW systems highlight the fragility of the supply chain. The U.S.’s reliance on a scant number of crystal growers, many of whom depend on foreign-sourced materials, further exacerbates the vulnerabilities in the DEW supply chain.

Strategic Implications and Recommendations

The insights from Govini’s analysis and the identified vulnerabilities within the DEW supply chain underscore the strategic risks posed by foreign influence and adversarial capital. To mitigate these risks and ensure the resilience and security of DEW supply chains, a multifaceted strategy is essential. This strategy should include diversifying supply sources, enhancing domestic production capabilities, and implementing stringent regulations to monitor and control foreign investments in critical technologies.

Furthermore, fostering innovation and competition within the domestic industrial base, coupled with targeted investments in key areas of the DEW supply chain, will be crucial for reducing dependency on foreign suppliers and mitigating the risks associated with adversarial capital. The U.S. must prioritize the strengthening of its DEW supply chains through comprehensive policy measures and collaborative efforts among government, industry, and academia to safeguard its national security interests in the face of evolving global challenges.

Top Ten Vendors By Risk Score

RankVendorRisk ScoreForeign InfluenceChinese Influence
  FY23  Name  0-100  % of Foreign RevenueCount of Foreign Suppliers% of Chinese RevenueCount of Chinese Suppliers
1TTM Technologies Inc. (TTMI)38.650.70%410.80%3
2Schneider Electric SE (SBGSY)35.372.00%8014.80%28
3Cummins Inc. (CMI)33.744.30%578.30%23
4Lumentum Holdings Inc. (LITE)3089.50%59.80%1
5Coherent Corp. (COHR)29.154.50%918.20%2
6MKS Instruments Inc. (MKSI)27.858.30%513.70%2
7Sanken Electric Co. Ltd.27.194.90%526.30%0
8General Electric Co. (GE)26.156.70%1957.80%45
9Jeol Ltd.24.291.70%312.70%0
10AMETEK Inc. (AME)23.148.40%33.20%1

Cybersecurity Risks and Espionage in Directed Energy Supply Chains

The cybersecurity landscape for directed energy weapons (DEWs) is marked by notable risks and incidents, reflecting broader vulnerabilities in the emerging technology sectors. These risks are compounded by the specific challenges faced by companies within the DEW supply chain, ranging from large corporations to small-tier suppliers.

Cybersecurity Threat Landscape

Open-source information reveals that cybersecurity threats specific to directed energy weapons, while limited, are significant and align with broader industry trends. Reports of cyberattacks targeting rare earth mining companies and laser manufacturing firms like IPG Photonics and MKS Instruments exemplify the risks. These attacks not only disrupted operations but also led to financial losses and potential data breaches. Larger defense contractors, such as Leonardo, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and L3Harris, reportedly face frequent cyberattacks, highlighting the sector-wide implications of cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Cybersecurity Compliance Challenges

The implementation of robust cybersecurity measures poses a substantial challenge, particularly for smaller companies in the DEW supply chain. These entities often lack the financial and human resources to invest in comprehensive cybersecurity infrastructure. Simple yet effective cybersecurity practices like multi-factor authentication and regular password updates are crucial but may be overlooked or underimplemented due to resource constraints. The Department of Defense’s (DoD) self-assessment model for cybersecurity further complicates the landscape, with potential inconsistencies and subjective interpretations affecting the reliability and effectiveness of cybersecurity measures across the supply chain.

Counterintelligence and Economic Espionage Risks

Beyond direct cyber threats, the DEW sector is also a target for counterintelligence and economic espionage activities. Foreign entities, particularly from countries with strategic interests in advancing their own directed energy capabilities, have shown interest in DEW-related conferences, sites, and technologies. The involvement of Chinese organizations in directed energy projects, as highlighted in NATO reports, underscores the dual-use nature of these technologies and the complexities of managing international collaboration and competition.

The case of Wuhan Raycus Fiber Laser Technologies, a company blacklisted by the U.S. yet still engaged with by American businesses, illustrates the delicate balance between national security concerns and the global interconnectedness of the technology and defense sectors.

Strategic Implications and Mitigation Strategies

To address these multifaceted risks, a comprehensive approach is needed, encompassing both technological and strategic measures. Enhancing cybersecurity infrastructure, promoting compliance with industry standards, and fostering a culture of cybersecurity awareness are crucial. At the same time, the DoD and other stakeholders must engage in continuous monitoring, threat assessment, and intelligence sharing to preempt and counteract espionage activities.

Investing in domestic capabilities, diversifying supply chains, and strengthening international partnerships with trusted allies can mitigate the risks of foreign influence and ensure the security and resilience of the DEW sector. The dynamic nature of cybersecurity threats and the strategic significance of directed energy technologies necessitate vigilant and adaptive strategies to protect these critical assets from both cyber and physical threats.

Multilateral Partnerships and Directed Energy Weapons: Global Trends and Developments

AUKUS: A Strategic Partnership in Progress

In September 2021, the formation of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, marked a significant shift in geopolitical alignments in the Indo-Pacific region. The first pillar of AUKUS focuses on equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, signifying a major leap in its naval capabilities. However, it’s the second pillar that has drawn considerable attention in the defense technology sphere, particularly regarding Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs).

Despite the partnership’s age of over two years, advancements in the DEW domain under AUKUS seem modest. Noteworthy progress includes the testing of a 34kW Australian High-Energy Laser (HEL) at the Klondyke Range Complex in New South Wales, designed to neutralize drone threats. Yet, the anticipation for broader announcements related to DEWs remains high, shadowed by ambiguity and the complex web of international arms regulations, notably the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

ITAR’s implications have been a recurrent theme in discussions among defense circles, spotlighting the hurdles it poses for technology exchange among AUKUS nations. These challenges underscore the need for regulatory reforms to unlock the full potential of AUKUS, especially in pioneering fields like DEWs.

NATO’s Cautious Foray into DEWs

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has recognized the strategic value of DEWs, notably for their precision in combat and capabilities against hypersonic and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Since 2018, NATO’s Research Task Group (SAS-140) has been pivotal in expediting DEWs’ transition to operational use, aiming to enhance NATO’s defensive and offensive capabilities.

However, the extent of NATO’s engagement and progress in DEWs is not fully transparent, with scattered reports of tests, such as the 2021 drone interception trial in Sardinia, Italy. These developments hint at a cautious but steady exploration of DEWs within the alliance, reflecting a collective interest in integrating advanced technologies for future warfare.

Australia’s Ambitious DEW Initiatives

Australia’s defense strategy vividly outlines the ambition to develop robust DEW capabilities, as evidenced by the 2020 Force Structure Plan. The opening of the Southern Hemisphere’s largest directed energy test range in Melbourne in March 2023, alongside substantial investments in DEW systems like Fractl for drone countermeasures, illustrates Australia’s proactive stance.

Partnerships with international defense firms, significant funding allocations, and the operational testing of high-power lasers like EOS’s 36-kilowatt HEL, all signify Australia’s vigorous pursuit of DEW technology. These efforts are part of a broader vision to fortify its military prowess and technological edge, particularly in the realm of modern warfare.

United Kingdom: Gearing Up for DEW Integration

The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has embarked on a ‘Transition Phase’ program to assimilate DEWs into its military fabric over the next decade. Collaborative agreements with the U.S., such as Information Exchange Agreements (IEAs) for HEL and High-Power Microwave (HPM) technologies, lay the groundwork for bilateral cooperation in DEW development.

The UK’s focus extends to advanced energy storage solutions, partnering with U.S. naval entities to harness Formula 1-derived technology for enhancing naval power systems. The Dragonfire program, integrating flywheel energy storage systems, exemplifies the UK’s commitment to advancing DEW technology, leveraging international partnerships to enhance its defense capabilities.

Israel: Advancing DEW Cooperation with the U.S.

The U.S.-Israel partnership has been instrumental in advancing DEW technology, underpinned by legislative support through acts like the United States-Israel Directed Energy Cooperation Act. The collaboration between Lockheed Martin and Rafael on the Iron Beam High Energy Laser Weapon System exemplifies this synergy, aiming to fortify defense mechanisms against aerial threats.

Following regional escalations, the U.S. proposed significant funding to bolster Israel’s DEW capabilities, particularly the Iron Beam system. This move reflects a strategic commitment to enhancing shared defense technologies, underscoring the importance of DEWs in contemporary and future military landscapes.

Japan and India: Strengthening DEW Collaborations with the U.S.

Japan’s defense engagement with the U.S. includes agreements on High-Power Microwave (HPM) systems and a mutual commitment to securing defense supplies. The focus on C-UAS DEW systems and the challenges posed by export controls highlight Japan’s active role in the evolving DEW landscape.

India’s collaboration with the U.S. emphasizes technology sharing and co-development, with initiatives to streamline technology transfers and bolster critical mineral supply chains. This partnership indicates a broader strategy to cultivate advanced defense technologies, including DEWs, fostering stronger bilateral defense relations.

Future Outlook and Strategic Implications

The trajectory of the DEW market points towards increased adoption and integration across military and security domains. The strategic implications of DEWs are profound, offering the potential to shift the balance of power in international relations and warfare. The ability to strike with precision, at the speed of light, and without physical munitions, allows for a form of engagement that can deter aggression while reducing the risks and costs associated with traditional weaponry.

As the DEW market continues to expand, it is expected to drive innovations in related sectors, including energy storage, propulsion technologies, and materials science, further contributing to the overall growth of the defense technology industry. Moreover, the integration of DEWs with artificial intelligence and networked battle management systems will enhance the decision-making and responsiveness of military operations, leading to a new era of automated and advanced warfare capabilities.

In conclusion, the Directed Energy Weapons market is set for substantial growth and transformation in the coming years, with significant implications for global defense strategies and capabilities. As nations and corporations push the boundaries of DEW technology, the future of warfare and defense operations will increasingly be defined by the precision, efficiency, and adaptability of these advanced weapon systems.

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