Is it possible the maturation of one advanced technology can be such a disruptive innovation to the point where certain types of warfare begin to look different? Directed-energy weapons—or “lasers,” as they are commonly known—present the possibility of transforming warfare due to numerous operational advantages, such as incredible speed and range, light-weight, improved accuracy, and limited collateral damage. In some respects, this innovation is already on the brink of implementation. With forthcoming architectural changes, such as new platforms on which we can mount lasers, operational use could be just on the horizon. In other areas, however, development has stalled because of international laws prohibiting the use of directed-energy weapons against personnel. It is crucial the defense industry find ways to harness the power of a discriminate laser weapon within the Law of Armed Conflict and continue to develop a technology which can target adversarial weapon systems and defend against inbound missiles. If the Law of Armed Conflict is adjusted to permit directed-energy weapons, which could minimize suffering to the most extent possible, using aerial lasers with the power to target personnel on the ground can redefine the way the U.S. Air Force utilizes airpower within the close air support, counterinsurgency, and counterterror attack missions.
Though we see news stories regarding the potential use of lasers against missiles and vehicles, using lasers for an anti-personnel purpose is not widely discussed. This is because today’s powerful and weaponized directed-energy weapons are capable of applying so much heat as to burn or melt an object. Thus, lasers can destroy most mechanized devices by means of ruining the computer processors with heat. In order to limit unnecessary harm, the UN General Assembly voted to prohibit the anti-personnel use of incendiary weapons against combatants in 1972. In 1977, Article 35 of the Geneva Conventions prohibited weapons that cause “superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.” To meet this intent while taking advantage of today’s advanced technology, the Law of Armed Conflict should be amended to allow for new directed-energy weapons that intentionally minimize suffering. Experts suggest that an anti-personnel laser must direct several megawatts of energy at a soldier to burn them. For the U.S. military to lawfully use directed-energy weapons against combatants would require the laser to generate even more lethal energy, enabling an instant incineration that does not cause unnecessary suffering.
Though the nature of war remains the same, the character of war—the way in which we fight—is subject to change, especially with the development of directed-energy weapons. Lasers, of course, already exist, and the current state of technology allows us to apply enough power to burn through metal. The innovative leap, then—is to take this weapon form, make it even more powerful, and mount it as an airborne weapon system; creating new linkages to complete the process. Architectural innovation, like this, is broken down into either disruptive or sustaining innovation.
A sustaining innovation is “improved performance along a traditional warfighting trajectory,” whereas a disruptive innovation is “improved performance along a nontraditional warfighting trajectory.” Targeting directed-energy weapons against other weapon systems is an example of a sustaining innovation because the dynamic character of air warfare would evolve slowly from the status quo. If the Law of Armed Conflict would permit the use of anti-personnel aerial lasers, and technology improves so lasers are discriminate and minimize suffering to the most extent possible, these lasers could become a disruptive innovation, greatly changing the character of war.
Directed-Energy Weapons: Today and Tomorrow
In order to foster an innovative culture and arrive at anti-personnel aerial lasers, development of directed-energy weapon technologies as defensive systems to incinerate incoming missiles—a sustaining innovation—should continue. As hypersonic missiles become more of a possibility, lasers capable of destroying a target at the speed of light might be the only method of defense against such weapons. In November 2017, for example, U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Command expressed interest in testing the capabilities of lasers mounted on a KC-135 refueling tanker for self-defense. In June 2017, Raytheon bolted a laser on an U.S. Army AH-64 Apache Helicopter and successfully destroyed an aerial target in a test environment. At sea, destroyers and cruisers are being equipped with lasers to defend themselves against drones and missiles. As for ground-based systems, the U.S. military is placing lasers on short range air-defense vehicles as well. This effort has already seen much progress since 1983, when President Ronald Reagan charged innovators with a heavy task by asking, “[What if] we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” The biggest barrier to further development has been power storage; hence there will need to be a continued focus on developing batteries and compact power generation devices.
Directed-Energy Weapons in Close Air Support
An optimal use of aerial lasers would be any mission targeting individual combatants, such as close air support or interdiction missions. In close air support, integrating directed-energy weapons into the concept of operations would not change the operational approach much at all, and would likely improve efficiency. If the weapon can be mounted on a turret or ball, independent of aircraft vector, and the pilot or weapons officer can fire the laser quickly and with more precision without worrying about the potential collateral damage that would come from the blast and/or frag of a more traditional weapon, they might be less task saturated and able to focus on the mission at hand. Or, if there is a dense population of enemies, a laser can fire a constant beam to strafe the entire area. In either case, with no large impact area like with a conventional missile or bomb, an accurate laser could reduce odds of civilian casualties or friendly fire. Limiting collateral damage while maintaining lethality has been a high priority for airpower innovators over the 20th and 21st centuries and it will continue to be essential in the development of future weapons.
Directed-Energy Weapons in Interdiction
When militaries first introduced airpower to warfare, it changed the battlespace because of its ability to affect events on the ground at a speed and physical remove previously unimagined. Soon, directed-energy weapons will make conventional weapons, particularly in unconventional warfare, seem slow because lasers will obliterate an adversary as fast as the speed of light. The American military regularly conducts airstrikes against terrorists and insurgents as part of the nation’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency efforts. As some missions target specific individuals from the air, they need to be able to discriminate. In counterinsurgency, the goal is to separate insurgents from a population, a mission which is mostly ground-based because of its task of winning the hearts and minds of the people. To some extent, however, targeting insurgents from the air complements the task if done with precision and there is no collateral damage. Lasers, therefore, could operate as an aerial sniper-type weapon, striking insurgents and terrorists in an urban environment more accurately than kinetic weapons and at a more rapid rate. Aerial strikes will not likely serve as a primary counterinsurgency effort since such operations require high fidelity information and intelligence, but it could complement such missions through accurate targeting and reduced risk to civilians.
Directed-Energy Weapons versus Conventional Weapons
Implementing lethal aerial directed-energy weapons will not replace conventional weapons, but complement traditional projectiles as each has different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, missiles or glide weapons are the weapon of choice to destroy an area with a high concentration of enemy assets or personnel. After a weapon decimates an area, however, combatants often remain in the region—perhaps mixed with friendly forces—and directed-energy weapons can then target remaining enemies individually. Though they can serve distinct roles, directed-energy weapons and conventional weapons have overlapping capabilities where one will have to be favored over the other. Figure 1 compares directed-energy weapons and conventional weapons, indicating a complex cost-benefit analysis.
In a decision between utilizing directed-energy weapons or conventional weapons, it is not only important to determine the desired effect and speed, but also factors such as rechargeability and weight in order to determine reliability and maneuverability. For rechargeability, we do not know for sure how long a lethal laser will take to recover/recharge between shots because the technology is not yet fully developed. However, if the recent improvement of electric car batteries is any indication of our rapid progress, the batteries needed for rechargeable, lethal, anti-personnel directed-energy weapons will soon be available assuming continued focus and investment. Nascent testing indicates today’s best technology would provide for 100 pulses in one charge while others say up to twenty minutes of continuous engagement. Most importantly, continuous recharge is not outside the realm of possibility if compact power devices that store the required energy are developed. The best option is to connect directed-energy weapons on an aircraft to the aircraft engine’s electrical generators so there is a constant supply of electricity to the laser. However, this of course poses tradeoffs and limitations as other hardware on aircraft are dependent on engine generators for uninterrupted power supply in-flight.
Conventional weapons are more reliable than directed-energy weapons because although they cannot use energy to recharge, they can usually reload if ammunition is available. Too much ammunition on an aircraft will impede its performance and range because of the increased weight, not to mention costs for kinetic projectiles. Barring the possibility of a heavy battery, a laser does not require ammo and is therefore lighter; this is favorable on an aircraft where space and weight impose mission cost and risk.
In Figure 2, the intersection of lines represents the point in time when energy production is so efficient that lasers become a cheaper option than conventional weapons. In weighing the costs and benefits of using a laser versus conventional weapons, a laser is more transportable with a compact energy-storage device and conventional weapons are more reliable because of their trustworthiness and current ability to carry out prolonged operations. Favoring directed-energy weapons over missiles or bullets, therefore, is simply a decision of how much risk a leader is willing to assume in a specific operation. However, lasers will not be able to fully replace kinetic projectiles since a laser’s ability to destroy targets could be vulnerable to atmospheric conditions (i.e. moisture, dust, etc.).
Directed-energy weapons could take armed aircraft to a new frontier in the capabilities they provide the joint force. Anti-personnel aerial lasers, specifically, have advantages making them superior to other accurate weapons because of their speed, greater accuracy, and maneuverability. If integrated into close air support and interdiction missions, directed-energy weapons would greatly enhance the operational effectiveness in each. Regardless, for now, high-energy directed-energy weapons can only apply enough heat to slowly burn material and give personnel an unforgettable sunburn.
In order for lasers to be permissible in warfare against ground personnel, we must develop directed-energy weapon technology so it produces enough energy to instantly kill an individual and not cause illegal and unnecessary suffering in accordance with the Laws of Armed Conflict and Geneva Conventions. In parallel, because these weapons involve instant kills from incineration, the Laws of Armed Conflict should be revised to allow for incendiary weapons as long as they do not cause unnecessary suffering, fulfilling the intent of the law. The Air Force expects to test destructive directed-energy weapons on AC-130 Gunships in the coming year in hopes of overcoming the numerous problems that the Airborne Laser Program suffered when it attempted to operationalize a Boeing 747 for ballistic missile defense. As for anti-personnel lasers, it is critical that the defense industry work in concert with the federal government to go through innovation and testing procedures quickly, limiting bureaucratic barriers from impeding the acquisition process. For the sake of improving our ability to fight tomorrow’s wars and save the lives of friendly forces, the U.S. military should pursue development of anti-personnel aerial lasers because of their potential contribution to the air domain and the effects it will likely have on other warfighting domains.
Robert Hunter Ward is a U.S. Air Force officer and recent graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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Header Image: Air Force Research Lab illustration.
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