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Is Directed Energy Destined to Remain in the Realms of Fantasy?

By Mark Eastwood, Defence IQ

Earlier this week, during the monotonous morning tube journey into work which every Londoner dreads, I noticed that the man stood in front of me was reading a Military-based novel on his e-book reader. Glancing at the screen, I saw that the plot of the novel seemed to revolve around the debate over whether the United States should turn to non-lethal Directed Energy weapons in the face of some shadowy unknown enemy of the State for whom traditional ballistic weaponry had, seemingly, no effect. The protagonist made explicit reference to the Active Denial System (ADS) and seemed to be the only one arguing that this non-lethal directed energy weapon should be used.  Just as the man reading the book departed the train, I noticed that the main character was musing about the difference which would come with the inauguration of the first Female President; surely she, with all her clichéd maternal inclination, would see the benefits of using the non-lethal weapon. This led me to think about that very question – is a change of leadership mentality all that is needed to move Directed Energy Weapons into operation?

The answer is, of course, not simply that black-and-white. But, having looked at the history of Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) over the past decade, I would argue that until a significant change in the mind-set of policymakers occurs, Directed Energy Weapons will never see the light of day, regardless of how many technical problems are overcome.

Directed Energy Weapons have been in development, in one form or another, since Regan’s ill-fated Strategic Defence Initiative, or as it more infamously became known, Star Wars. Whilst the modern DEW has developed a long way since that system, the principles remain the same – harnessing energy, either a laser-beam or High Powered Microwave, and projecting it onto an object to render some kind of effect.

Early Directed Energy Systems were so fraught with technical issues that they remained firmly in the realms of scientists, and some of the more imaginative Sci-Fi writers, but over the past decade, technological advancements have made Directed Energy Systems much more feasible. Whilst military-grade Directed Energy weapons are still faced with problems over power, heat capacity and size, many would argue that once these issues are overcome, the world’s military will open their arms to these systems; marking a significant shift in the weaponry we see on the modern battlefield. And, whilst this may indeed be the case, I would argue that it is in fact highly unlikely.

The reason for this takes me back to the original point I made: Directed Energy Systems will not see the light of day until an organisational and governmental mind-set change is achieved. As discussed above, some would have us believe that this is not the case and that technical restrictions are the real inhibiting factor for Directed Energy. For such arguments, there is one significant piece of evidence which undermines their argument – The Active Denial System.

Mentioned in the Tube passenger’s book, the ADS is a system designed for area denial and crowd control. By emitting high powered microwaves, it is designed to heat a person’s skin to an unbearable level so that they have to flee from its range, but without being injured. The safety of the device when used against humans has been tested thousands of times, all yielding no unpleasant results. Indeed, so successful did the device prove in testing, that it was sent to Afghanistan for use by the US Military. Yet, for all the positives associated with the system, it was not used in Afghanistan and was quickly withdrawn. The reason for this? The policy makers and high-ranking military officials were worried about the bad-press using this system would generate. Stories of the US using “Death-Rays” against the Taliban and civilians in Afghanistan posed too much of a PR headache for the US and so the system, which had proved time and time again to cause no harm, was withdrawn.

Now, one might argue that this was a sensible decision given the bad press the US already received in Afghanistan. However, this doesn’t alter the fact that the current mind-set surrounding Directed Energy led to its withdrawal. Efforts to re-invent the ADS after this set-back led to it being introduced into an LA jail, as a method of riot control. However, one of the lead scientists involved in the project, told me that the project was pulled, “at the eleventh hour due to concerns from federal government over how the system might be interpreted”. Yet again, the mind-set of the political leadership, fuelled by death-ray science-fiction of the past, led to the withdrawal of the system before it was even used.

I find it hard to believe that this mind-set has changed so much in the past 12 months that any Directed Energy System which became viable now would be accepted immediately. In fact I believe that until Directed Energy can get away from its current associations, it is destined to remain stuck in the laboratory and the pages of fictional novels.

The future of Directed Energy Systems, both at a technical and a policy level will be discussed in-depth at Defence IQ’s Directed Energy Systems 2013 Conference. For more information, and to learn what the experts believe the future holds for Directed Energy, view the full agenda here.


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