Given the officially secretive nature of America’s sprawling military presence around the world and its domestic support bureaucracy, the U.S. public is often left in the dark as to what kind of new weapons of war its tax dollars are paying to develop. In the case of things like “high powered microwave” weapons, this “makes public and academic examination of these programs problematic,” according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.
The CRS report offers some insight into the U.S. Army’s present approach to “directed energy weapons” — lasers, along with the aforementioned high powered microwave weapons, that sound like something out of science fiction.
“Such weapons are probably years away from actual deployment by the Army, if indeed they ever become practical options,” notes Steven Aftergood of Secrecy News, in reporting on the CRS document (although as I’ve previously discussed, developing them certainly seems to be a priority for the military, with the outgoing Obama administration authorizing increased funding, for example). Some obstacles to using directed energy weapons are technological.
“While DE weapons offer a variety of advantages over conventional kinetic weapons including precision, low cost per shot, and scalable effects, there are also some basic constraints, such as beam attenuation, limited range, and an inability to be employed against non-line-of-sight targets, that will need to be addressed in order to make these weapons effective across the entire spectrum of combat operations,” the CRS report notes. Yet other considerations have little to do with technical capability — indeed, as the report makes clear, military capabilities using directed energy have grown considerably in recent years.
“The U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and defense contractor Raytheon reportedly successfully tested an Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter outfitted with a laser in June 2017, knocking down an unmanned aerial target at a range of 1.4 kilometers,” it notes. “The experiment reportedly was the first time a laser hit a target from a rotary-wing aircraft. While project officials note they are not at the point where they can put forward a business case to advance the project, they are using this test to better understand the interactions between the aircraft, the laser, and the target.”
An attack helicopter capable of shooting down a drone almost a mile away using a laser is a somewhat frightening prospect — so frightening, one might argue, that using it would contribute to an image of America as an evil empire that the U.S. military should not want to exacerbate. Indeed, as the CRS report points out — and similarly, in fact, to America’s program of targeted killing with armed drones in places like Pakistan — a major obstacle in the way of using directed energy weapons comes not in the form of technological constraints, but rather as a reluctance to deploy them over fear of public outrage and blowback.
“The U.S. military has a long and complicated history in developing directed energy (DE) weapons,” the CRS report points out. “Many past efforts have failed for a variety of reasons and not all failures were attributed to scientific or technological challenges associated with weaponizing DE.” Indeed, the report goes on to discuss the case of the “Active Denial System” microwave weapon, (another gem from laser-equipped helicopter manufacturer Raytheon, one of America’s biggest defense contractors) which was deployed to Afghanistan several years ago but recalled over public relations concerns:
The Active Denial System (ADS) was developed by Raytheon for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and DOD’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, with work starting in 2002. The ADS is a nonlethal counter personnel weapon that projects a focused millimeter wave energy beam that induces a painful heating sensation on an adversary’s skin with the intent of repelling individuals without injury.
In 2010, an Air Force ADS deployed to Afghanistan was withdrawn without having been used. Although no official comment was made at the time, it was speculated that public opposition and fears of possible Taliban propaganda concerning the use of a “radiation weapon” against Afghans might have played a role in this decision.
The Army has explored the development of a Solid State Active Denial Technology or SS-ADT for such missions as crowd dispersal, checkpoint security, perimeter security, and port protection both in fixed and mobile modes (…). It uses 95 GHz millimeter radio frequency waves, and the Army claims it presents a minimal health risk to its targets and is compliant with treaties and international legal obligations.
On the topic of treaties and international legal obligations — as well as international politics — the report also discusses some other considerations.
“By no means does the United States enjoy a monopoly on DE weapons development, and potential adversaries such as Russia and China, as well as allies such as Israel, have well-established DE weapons programs that, in some cases, might be on par with or even surpass current U.S. DE weapons development programs, presenting additional national security concerns to U.S. policymakers,” it notes.
“Although it is difficult to predict how DE weapons could affect international relations—primarily because many of these technologies are in development—there are some general observations that may be useful for policymakers.”
These include, according to the report, that “if DE weapons become more common and effective and possibly take on a more offensive role, their effect on military operations and international relations could grow. As previously noted, DE weapons represent a transformative capability in a number of military domains, perhaps fundamentally altering the nature of combat and putting other nations at a severe military disadvantage. (…) In a sense, if DE weapons become more commonplace, a DE ‘arms race’ could ensue.”
Such an international political situation could in turn conceivably impact the international legal situation, the CRS report notes. “Should DE weapons become more prevalent on the battlefield and provide those nations who possess them a distinctive and overwhelming military advantage, it is not inconceivable that international efforts to regulate their use might be undertaken.”
That might not be such a bad thing.