• Wed. May 31st, 2023

Science & Tech Spotlight: Directed Power Weapons


May 25, 2023

Why This Matters

There is a surge in interest in directed power weapons from a number of nations—including the U.S.—primarily for counter drone missions. These weapons use electromagnetic power to lead to effects ranging from deterrence to destruction. They offer you capabilities that standard 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. In contrast to weapons that fire bullets or missiles, DEWs can respond to a threat in distinct approaches. For instance, they can temporarily degrade electronics on a drone or physically destroy it. See our 2022 Spotlight for much more facts on counter-drone technologies.

How does it operate? Each and every kind of DEW makes use of a distinct area of the electromagnetic spectrum (see fig. 1). This spectrum describes all of the sorts of light—including these the human eye can’t see—and classifies them according to wavelength. Distinctive forms of electromagnetic power have distinct 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 typically discussed in terms of their energy output—the quantity of electromagnetic power transferred more than time. When DEWs use electromagnetic power related to every day things, such as household microwaves, their energy output is vastly greater, as described beneath.

Higher power lasers generate a incredibly narrow beam of light, commonly in the infrared to visible area, and are generally utilised 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 standard 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 as a result can impact many targets at when.

Higher energy microwave weapons generate microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than higher power lasers and millimeter wave weapons. These weapons can generate much more than one hundred megawatts of energy, which is almost 150,000 occasions much more potent than the typical household microwave. Like millimeter wave weapons, they can also impact many targets due to the fact of their bigger beam size.

Each and every DEW can generate 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 improve to destruction of the asset if essential (see fig. two).

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

DEWs can deny entrance to an location or avert enemy forces or assets from functioning inside an location. DEWs utilised for denial do not lead to lengthy-term harm to targets, and when enemy forces or assets leave the location, they generally regain function or the impact is mitigated. For instance, the Division of Defense’s (DOD) Active Denial Program makes use of millimeter waves that interact with the water and fat molecules in a person’s skin to produce a heating sensation. For the duration of testing, the discomfort persuaded folks 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 particular person 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 improved force.

If a higher quantity of force is necessary, 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 successfully, 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 crucial to enabling the 2018 National Defense Technique and reported spending about $1 billion annually for the final three years on study and improvement. The U.S. military has tested a range of DEW prototypes because 2014, mainly 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 improve the energy output of DEWs to engage much more potent targets—like missiles. Nevertheless, 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 wish to sustain competitiveness on the battlefield. Technological innovations, such as the improvement of smaller sized lasers that are safer to operate, allow modern day DEWs to be a great deal much more transportable and sensible. For instance, a 4-wheel all-terrain car can now hold a higher power laser potent sufficient 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 standard weapons. DEWs use power fired at the speed of light, generating them more rapidly 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 wants from nonlethal to lethal responses. For instance, the longer a laser is focused on target, the much more harm or destruction will take place.
  • Advancing other makes use of. Study and improvement for DEWs could also advantage civilian makes use of. For instance, the improvement of greater power lasers could aid projects that use directed power to transport or “beam” energy to remote and disadvantaged places.


  • Technological limitations. DEWs are frequently much less successful the farther they are from the target, and atmospheric situations and cooling specifications can limit their effectiveness. For instance, fog and storms can minimize laser beam variety and excellent.
  • Battlefield use. Choices about how and when to use DEWs or standard weapons may perhaps be difficult. For instance, wider beam DEWs, such as higher energy microwave or millimeter wave weapons, impact all assets in an location, irrespective of whether pal or foe. 
  • Ethical and well being issues. Despite the fact that there are potentially relevant international laws and suggestions, their applicability to DEWs is not usually properly defined. Uncertainty about lengthy-term well being effects of DEWs on men and women either intentionally or unintentionally exposed to directed power has led to issues concerning the ethics of applying 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 make certain there is suitable guidance for applying DEWs as the technologies matures?
  • What are the trade-offs of applying nonlethal DEW technologies just before prospective well being effects are totally understood?

For much more facts, speak to: Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or bothwellb@gao.gov.