Opinion: A recent report from the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) on the development and application of directed energy weapons has timely insight for Australia’s Defence Strategic Review on the application of directed energy weapons in the Australian Defence Force, writes defence analyst and former naval officer Christopher Skinner.
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The report concludes by noting potential issues and questions for Congress including technological maturity, cost, weapon characteristics, mission utility, defense industrial base, intelligence requirements, coordination within the US Department of Defense and the applicability of arms control, thus far.
The idea of death rays or similar beamed effects has been around for decades in fiction and occasional published tests and trials, but the hard reality is that there has not been much achieved in spite of significant investment. The CRS report provides descriptions and progress reports of the dozen or so directed energy programs run by the three primary armed services, Air Force, Army and Navy, from which it concludes there has been progress but more work to be done.
For Australia there are potential applications in all domains, excepting the undersea domain where laser effects are severely limited and microwave entirely ineffective. Examples that Australia should be thinking about for the next 10 to 20 years include non-kinetic air defence for land and seaborne application, especially with the rapid increase in use of lethal autonomous uncrewed vehicle (AUV) attacks, especially when operated in swarms.
Other applications include dazzling or blinding space and airborne sensors being used in intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roles.
Challenges for all these applications include the energy needed to generate the effects, the ability to focus the energy sufficiently, accurately and for long enough to produce the required effects, and the practical means to field the directed energy weapon for practical use in air, land or sea environments.
Then there are all the usual concerns about cost, industrial capacity to deliver the directed energy weapon systems when their design matured and have been accepted, the need for an approved concept for operations and dealing with the training, logistic support and other aspects of sustainment.
One feature that is less traditional is the applicable international arms control regime where there is already a prohibition on blinding lasers that are specifically designed to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced human vision. This prohibition does not extend to collateral injury from use of such weapons where their primary function is defence against ISR or kinetic attack.
An interesting case study is the installation of the Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) as a 150-kilowatt Laser Weapons System Demonstrator (LWSD) in USS Portland (LPD-27) to test and evaluate defence against unmanned aerial systems (UAS), small boats and ISR sensors. This prototype will not be followed by wider fitment suggesting there are still many issues to address.
The CRS report cites the US Defence Department Roadmap for Directed Energy Weapons as intended to deal with anti-ship cruise and land attack cruise missiles and aircraft close combat over the current decade, with defence against ballistic and hypersonic cruise missiles in the decade beyond.
For Australia, the following issues are worthy of consideration in the Strategic Review:
- Lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine especially the very large usage of kinetic weapon stocks.
- Vulnerability of Russian ships to land-based lethal unmanned aerial systems.
- Ubiquity of air and space-based surveillance platforms with sensors vulnerable to dazzling by directed energy weapons.
- Provision of compact high energy density sources for DE weapon systems.
- Australian industrial base for manufacture of DE weapons under licence.
- Research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) capacity within Australia to develop DE weapons.
- The need to anticipate the future formulation of arms control constraints on some uses of DE weapons and how such constraints should be taken into consideration for their effective use.
The latter issue is especially important if, as is feasible, the use of DE weapons becomes a highly effective defence against swarmed drone or cruise missile attacks even extending to hypersonic cruise or ballistic missiles. Australia must be at the front of this innovative approach to defence.
Cristopher Skinner served 30 years in the Royal Australian Navy as a Weapons and Electrical Engineering Officer in six surface warships, in the South-East Asian Treaty Organisation, the Vietnam War and surveillance of the North-West Indian Ocean. In two of these ships he was the action Weapons Control Officer for ASMD and AAW watchkeeper for area air defence dealing with engagement decisions in real time. Shore service included secondment to the Defence Research Centre, Salisbury and to the US Naval Sea Systems Command to manage the lead-ship trials for a joint frigate project, Superintendent of Missile and torpedo Maintenance, and the initial project director for the ANZAC frigate program of 10 ships for Australia and New Zealand. He is a member of several naval and geopolitical institutes, but the opinions expressed here are his own.