CNAS Senior Fellow Dr. Jason Ellis examines the value of directed energy weapons and makes a series of recommendations for how the U.S. can invest in a cost-effective and time-efficient manner to further mature this important technology.
After a nearly half-century quest, the U.S. military today is on the cusp of finally fielding operationally relevant directed-energy weapons. While megawatt-class lasers to shoot down ballistic missiles remain, for now, a distant prospect, today's tactical lasers are potentially useful, cost-effective approaches for countering threats such as low-cost drones and small boats. High-power microwaves open up new avenues for nonkinetic effects, a significant advantage for controlling escalation or limiting collateral damage. Perhaps the most significant benefit to fielding these nascent directed-energy capabilities, however, is that they will start the crucial process of integrating a new technology into operations, with the attendant innovations required in organization, training, concepts of operation and doctrine. Beginning the crucial process of experimentation and concept development to learn how best to employ directedenergy weapons will be critical to ensuring that, as directed-energy technologies continue to mature, DOD is best postured to benefit.