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Science & Tech Spotlight: Directed Power Weapons


May 25, 2023

Why This Matters

There is a surge in interest in directed power weapons from many nations—including the U.S.—primarily for counter drone missions. These weapons use electromagnetic power to bring about effects ranging from deterrence to destruction. They present capabilities that traditional weapons may perhaps not, but challenges have so far prevented widespread operational use.

The Technologies

What is it? Directed power weapons (DEW) use concentrated electromagnetic power to combat enemy forces and assets. These weapons include things like higher power lasers and other higher energy electromagnetics—such as millimeter wave and higher energy microwave weapons. As opposed to weapons that fire bullets or missiles, DEWs can respond to a threat in diverse approaches. For instance, they can temporarily degrade electronics on a drone or physically destroy it. See our 2022 Spotlight for much more data on counter-drone technologies.

How does it operate? Each and every form of DEW utilizes a diverse area of the electromagnetic spectrum (see fig. 1). This spectrum describes all of the sorts of light—including these the human eye can not see—and classifies them according to wavelength. Various forms of electromagnetic power have diverse properties. For instance, the wavelength impacts what the directed power can penetrate—such as metal or human skin.

Figure 1. Place of directed power weapons on the electromagnetic spectrum.

All DEWs emit power at the speed of light, and are generally discussed in terms of their energy output—the quantity of electromagnetic power transferred more than time. Though DEWs use electromagnetic power equivalent to each day things, such as household microwaves, their energy output is vastly larger, as described beneath.

Higher power lasers make a incredibly narrow beam of light, ordinarily in the infrared to visible area, and are ordinarily utilized on one particular target at a time. The beam can be pulsed or continuous, creating a energy output of at least 1 kilowatt. This output is 200,000 occasions higher than a common laser pointer and is capable of melting steel.

Millimeter wave weapons have wavelengths amongst 1 and ten millimeters and produce much more than 1 kilowatt of energy. Millimeter wave weapons have a bigger beam size than higher power lasers and consequently can influence many targets at when.

Higher energy microwave weapons make microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than higher power lasers and millimeter wave weapons. These weapons can make much more than one hundred megawatts of energy, which is practically 150,000 occasions much more highly effective than the typical household microwave. Like millimeter wave weapons, they can also influence many targets mainly because of their bigger beam size.

Each and every DEW can make a variety of effects from nonlethal to lethal, based on elements such as the time on target, the distance to the target, and even the component of the target on which the DEW is focused. DEWs can use this variety of effects to graduate responses to a threat. A graduated response could get started with temporarily stopping use of an asset or its access to an location and raise to destruction of the asset if required (see fig. two).

Figure two. Examples of graduated responses utilizing directed power weapons.

DEWs can deny entrance to an location or avoid enemy forces or assets from functioning inside an location. DEWs utilized for denial do not bring about lengthy-term harm to targets, and when enemy forces or assets leave the location, they ordinarily regain function or the impact is mitigated. For instance, the Division of Defense’s (DOD) Active Denial Program utilizes millimeter waves that interact with the water and fat molecules in a person’s skin to produce a heating sensation. In the course of testing, the discomfort persuaded men and women to move away from the location.

DEWs can also degrade the efficacy of an enemy’s assets. For instance, higher power lasers can temporarily overwhelm a individual or a sensor’s capacity to see or sense by emitting a glare—called dazzling. Dazzling can act as a non-verbal warning just before resorting to elevated force.

If a higher quantity of force is essential, DEWs can also harm or destroy enemy assets. To do this, a higher power laser can emit electromagnetic power with a wavelength the target material absorbs most efficiently, melting the material. The laser could concentrate on a sensor and harm a drone, or concentrate on a fuel tank or battery and destroy it.

How mature is it? DEWs variety in maturity from study projects to prototypes tested in the field. DOD named DEWs as a technologies essential to enabling the 2018 National Defense Method and reported spending about $1 billion annually for the final three years on study and improvement. The U.S. military has tested a assortment of DEW prototypes considering that 2014, mostly for counter-drone missions. For instance, the Air Force’s prototype Tactical Higher Energy Microwave Operational Responder (THOR) lately completed two years of testing. DOD is researching approaches to raise the energy output of DEWs to engage much more highly effective targets—like missiles. On the other hand, as GAO lately reported, the U.S. military faces challenges bridging the gap amongst DEW improvement and acquisition, potentially limiting widespread operational use.

Why now? DEW study and improvement has been ongoing for decades in several countries—including the U.S.—and is at present experiencing a surge worldwide. This surge stems in component from advances in technologies and a need to retain competitiveness on the battlefield. Technological innovations, such as the improvement of smaller sized lasers that are safer to operate, allow contemporary DEWs to be a great deal much more transportable and sensible. For instance, a 4-wheel all-terrain automobile can now hold a higher power laser highly effective adequate to harm drones. The U.S. and 30 other nations are establishing DEWs, most for counter-drone missions, according to a 2021 Air Force report.


  • Complement to traditional weapons. DEWs use power fired at the speed of light, creating them more quickly and potentially much less expensive per shot than missiles. Some DEWs have practically limitless ammunition and can fire as lengthy as they have energy.
  • Ease of graduated response. DOD can tailor DEWs to meet mission requirements from nonlethal to lethal responses. For instance, the longer a laser is focused on target, the much more harm or destruction will happen.
  • Advancing other utilizes. Analysis and improvement for DEWs could also advantage civilian utilizes. For instance, the improvement of larger power lasers could aid projects that use directed power to transport or “beam” energy to remote and disadvantaged places.


  • Technological limitations. DEWs are normally much less efficient the farther they are from the target, and atmospheric situations and cooling specifications can limit their effectiveness. For instance, fog and storms can lower laser beam variety and high quality.
  • Battlefield use. Choices about how and when to use DEWs or traditional weapons may perhaps be difficult. For instance, wider beam DEWs, such as higher energy microwave or millimeter wave weapons, influence all assets in an location, whether or not buddy or foe. 
  • Ethical and well being issues. Though there are potentially relevant international laws and recommendations, their applicability to DEWs is not often effectively defined. Uncertainty about lengthy-term well being effects of DEWs on individuals either intentionally or unintentionally exposed to directed power has led to issues concerning the ethics of utilizing DEWs.

Policy Context and Inquiries

  • As the technologies matures, what actions could policymakers take to aid bridge the gap amongst DEW improvement and acquisition?
  • What actions could policymakers take to assure there is acceptable guidance for utilizing DEWs as the technologies matures?
  • What are the trade-offs of utilizing nonlethal DEW technologies just before possible well being effects are totally understood?

For much more data, get in touch with: Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or bothwellb@gao.gov.

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