In the latest news from the United States Defense Department, leadership at the Pentagon has made known its intention of bringing a total transformation to the American military’s arsenal.
At the 2018 Directed Energy Summit, held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington DC, Michael D. Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, spoke to more than 500 senior leaders from the U.S. government and defense industry, laying out the prospective impact of integrating directed energy capabilities into the national security enterprise.
Reminiscing back to his early days at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) during the early 1980’s, Griffin told his audience that “directed energy was then in our view an important part of our future portfolio...it was the only way that in the long run you could see yourself competing with the threat and coming out on top.”
What are these intriguing weapons systems and what are the factors driving their development within the U.S. defense industry?
Directed energy weapons are roughly defined as devices that use focused forms of energy including lasers, microwaves, and particle beams to inflict damage on a target. Directed energy is not exactly a brand new category of arms. The Nazis were experimenting with sound pulse cannons during the Second World War. U.S. officials delivered reports that Russia had used some mysterious laser-type weapon against Chinese troops during the Sino-Soviet border conflict, although many in the Intelligence Community considered these assertions largely baseless.
Research into weaponizing directed energy got rolling in the Defense Department in the 1980’s after President Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Since this development got off the ground over three decades ago, several distinct categories of weapons have come about, each with their strategic and tactical advantages. Some are less promising than others.
The more “stable” forms of direct energy have already been implemented in weapons systems. Laser cannons have been the most successful by far. Both the U.S. and Russia have been producing experimental laser guns since the mid-1980’s. But it wasn’t until the turn of the century that anything resembling a deployable system was built. In 2009 engineers of American defense company Northrop Grumman successfully tested an electric laser capable of producing a 100-kilowatt ray of light at Redondo Beach, California.
Other major defense firms have followed suit, and new systems continue to be produced today. In a recent joint development program with the U.S. Army and US Special Operations Command, Raytheon succeeded in developing a laser light small enough to be mounted on an Apache helicopter. Lockheed Martin, a company that has been exploring directed energy for the past 40 years, offers a range of laser platforms from offensive systems to countermeasures.
The recent Directed Energy Summit and Undersecretary Griffin’s speech, in particular, were all about making these systems the norm within the military instead of the science fiction-type outliers they are today. Griffin understands that this will take a fundamental paradigm shift at many levels in order to come about. Congress and past administrations have fundamentally opposed the development of directed energy as a standard warfighting tool. Even Reagan saw the SDI as an addition to America’s military capabilities and as a means to give the armed forces an edge, not as a total revamping of the U.S. arsenal. “I think that has changed,” said Griffin. “When I have discussions on the Hill, there is very much - a lean-forward posture now.” Convinced that the policy environment is more open to integrating his plan, Griffin is starting to be more vocal about his opinions. The Directed Energy Summit was one of his first opportunities to give over his case to a more public audience.
Griffin has big plans, far beyond the newest designs being adopted by the military many hear about on the news. The Undersecretary wants to expand the U.S. arsenal to a variety of systems from high-power microwaves, diversifying laser designs and figuring out how to build a working “particle beam” weapon, a particularly unstable technology and a tricky challenge.
The recent Summit in Washington may go down as a major milestone in bringing America’s military further into the future.