Publication: The Military Balance 2015
02 December 2015
Directed energy (DE) systems have been something of a chimera for defence planners. From their first appearances in science fiction, to the ambitious 1980s United States’ Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), they have been touted by advocates of the technology as a means of engaging military targets with, in the case of lasers, speed-of-light delivery and the possibility of near-unlimited magazines compared with kinetic-effect weapons, such as missiles or guns.
The US, several European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France, as well as Russia, China and Israel, have all been engaged in long-standing research and development (R&D) into DE systems. While there has been limited transition from the laboratory and related test environments into weapons systems suitable and ready for operational exploitation, in spite of considerable levels of investment since the 1970s, the practical military employment of DE systems is drawing closer.
There is now the potential for DE to be adopted far more widely than in the niche applications in which it has been utilised so far, such as vehicle immobilisation. This is in part because technology has matured, but also because near-term ambitions have been reviewed by defence planners. DE is now seen as a disruptive technology that can potentially provide substantial military benefit at the tactical rather than strategic level – with the proviso that such systems must be brought to an appropriate level of maturity for deployment. Two areas, in particular, have long interested armed forces: laser systems and radio frequency (RF). These offer the most promise in terms of tactical application.