We live in an increasingly gray zone and asymmetric world, where coercive actions must be effective against near-peer adversaries and non-state actors alike.
Ukraine is largely a drone war, while the U.S. and allies struggle to supply much costlier conventional weapons. China is modernizing its forces with a ferocity too few Americans appreciate, spanning land, air, sea and space capabilities, as well as electronic and information warfare. At home, our citizens and infrastructure face looming threats from attritable systems.
As sobering as these perils are, the U.S. already has the means to achieve step changes in mission effectiveness and deterrence, using directed energy (defined as concentrated beams of electromagnetic energy). Legacy military applications mostly focused on jamming communications and face barriers to achieving more comprehensive effects.
Today, thanks to five years of dramatic advances in directed energy, we stand at a pivotal moment, as high-power microwave capabilities enter the spotlight. Directed energy will define the next era of defense.
While the ability to take down a drone with a single pulse is critical today, it only hints at the paradigm shift that is happening. In conventional warfare, the ultimate measure of capabilities was land, sea, or air supremacy. Owning the electromagnetic spectrum means owning each of these and more.
Recent tests have demonstrated the ability to take down swarms of drones with surgical precision, with a path to scale to hundreds, even thousands of drones. This represents a massive step forward for our military, and indicate how close the U.S. is to a range of HPM applications that read like sci-fi, but are within reach given sufficient Defense Department investment:
— Disabling the guidance systems of enemy missiles at great distances.
— Airborne systems that can disarm thousands of mines over a large area.
— A single missile that can fly over a convoy, “firing” tens of thousands of pulses and rendering vehicles and devices useless until their microchips can be replaced.
— A system to accompany satellites, making them virtually impossible to target.
If, as B.H. Liddell Hart wrote in 1952, “the object in war is a better state of peace”, directed energy can achieve it by consigning our enemies to pre-industrial futility.
The scenarios above are all conceivable thanks to a state of the art that now consists of software-defined, frequency agile, solid state, HPM systems. Being software-defined creates the ability to dynamically direct energy to specific targets, at specific frequencies, using machine intelligence. Digital beam-forming provides the agility to switch between targets. Solid state HPMs are portable and rugged enough to fit on a flatbed, without heavy thermal management infrastructure. They boast unlimited “magazines”, are accurate at distance, don’t produce obvious signatures, and minimize collateral damage. They are cheap, fast to start and upgrade, and cost pennies in energy per action. Far from degrading, they get smarter with repeated use.
The Army is carrying the torch for deploying directed energy systems, against drone swarms and many other threats. Its Indirect Fire Protection – High-Power Microwave and High-Energy Laser programs are helping ready the most mission critical directed energy capabilities for battle. It has been instrumental in establishing the Pentagon’s Joint Counter UAS Office, while the Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office expedites procurement and fielding of numerous classes of emerging technologies. RCCTO is working to rapidly field several prototypes of the Leonidas counter-electronics system, which reflects years of work by engineers combining Silicon Valley and defense industry DNA.
As power density increases, directed energy capabilities will continue to multiply. Ambitious R&D in the most urgent areas, across all services, forward-thinking programs of record, and embracing a responsibility to Western civilization are likewise investments that will compound, less visibly but no less importantly.
The stakes could not be higher. Yet the unyielding vision and work of innovators in and out of uniform should renew our optimism that Americans will once again engineer victory.
Joe Lonsdale is Managing Partner at 8VC and Co-Founder of Epirus, a developer of directed energy systems.