From Star Trek to Star Wars, weapons firing lasers that can vaporize their targets are the stuff of science fiction and James Bond villains. It’s also a military technology that American taxpayers are paying to develop — today.
The U.S. Department of Defense is spending roughly $1 billion a year to develop what are known in the trade as “directed energy” weapons, according to a new report from the U.S Government Accountability Office. Those include high-energy lasers that can be used to blast drones out of the sky.
More recent research has focused on making laser weapons small and light enough to be used by one person, said the GAO, which visited U.S. military installations and defense contractors as well as viewed prototype directed-energy systems. The Pentagon is also experimenting with high-powered microwave weapons that can penetrate solid objects and disrupt an enemy’s power source, sensors and other electronics.
Whether such weapons are worth the money is an open question, and the answer likely depends on whom you ask. For defense contractors, of course, a new generation of powerful military hardware could provide vast new revenue streams.
For the U.S. armed services, directed-energy tech could mean stronger national security. According to a 2022 analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a nonpartisan agency that explores topics for lawmakers, high-energy lasers and microwave weapons might be useful for short-range air defense, against drone swarms, and to counter rocket, artillery and mortar fire.
The report found that such systems, some of which can cut through steel and aluminum in seconds, may be cheaper and more effective than traditional munitions. For instance, weapons that use lasers, microwaves, gamma rays and other kinds of electromagnetic energy don’t need to be loaded mechanically and can be fired repeatedly, according to the GAO.
“Light from a laser beam can reach a target almost instantly, thereby eliminating the need to calculate an intercept course, as interceptor missiles must do,” CRS noted in its report. “By remaining focused on a particular spot on the target, a laser can cause disabling damage to the target within seconds, depending on the laser power.”
Some military analysts also contend that high-energy weapons are potentially more accurate than conventional munitions, reducing the risk of collateral civilian deaths.
Different U.S. military branches have tested a range of directed-energy weapons. For example, the Air Force has developed a high-energy laser than can be affixed to aircraft, while the Navy has tested lasers to disrupt drones and small boats. The Defense Department also expects to produce a powerful prototype laser weapon this year that could soon be used in demonstrations of anti-cruise missile systems, GAO said.
“Gone to waste”
Yet directed energy weapons also have legal and functional limitations. For instance, some types of laser systems are restricted by international treaty; the United Nations bans laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness. Previous prototypes have also shown to be affected by rain, fog, sand, smoke or other atmospheric conditions, while simply powering such devices remains an ongoing challenge.
Notably, new weapons also require new ways of using them.
“As a novel technology, [directed energy] weapons require the development of new tactics, techniques and procedures — processes by which the warfighter knows how best to use a particular technology in an operational environment,” GAO said.
The upshot: High-energy weaponry may work better in the lab than in the field. And to date, the billions of dollars the U.S. has plowed into developing such defense systems have largely gone to waste, according to CRS.
“The United States has been researching directed energy since the 1960s, yet some experts have observed that ‘actual directed-energy programs … have frequently fallen short of expectations,’ with the DOD investing billions of dollars in programs that failed to reach maturity and were ultimately canceled,” the agency said.