My favorite fictional character is Han Solo. The “Star Wars” fighter pilot and renegade challenged authority and fought the battle of good and evil, often using futuristic laser weapons, a form of directed-energy technology.
Directed energy has captivated science fiction fans for decades, but we must not allow a failure of imagination to prevent us from bringing these weapons from the big screen to the battlefield. For inspiration on how to accomplish this mission, let’s break down a few notable Hollywood scenes to separate fact from fiction regarding which capabilities are possible today, which are needed most urgently, what limiting factors are stymying development, and what the U.S. needs to do to lead the world in directed-energy innovation.
What we have
Lasers played a supporting role in one of the most famous scenes of the James Bond series. In “Goldfinger” (1964), Bond is captured and strapped to a table by the film’s namesake villain, who taunts him with a pencil-thin laser beam ready to slice Bond in two. While this futuristic portrayal of lasers enthralled audiences in the 1960s, industry and the military have made significant strides in directed-energy research and development since.
Today, laser weapons are a reality, and multiple military branches are actively testing them. In a test last May off the coast of Hawaii, the U.S. Navy successfully shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle using a high-energy laser weapon system aboard the amphibious ship Portland.
The U.S. Army has also conducted demonstrations using 5-kilowatt-class lasers to protect against UAVs. This year, soldiers are expected to fire lasers from Stryker combat vehicles as part of a test to select the firm that will equip a platoon of Strykers with 50-kilowatt-class lasers capable of protecting soldiers from drones, rotary-wing aircraft and other potentially lethal airborne threats. These laser weapons could be crucial in countering threats and providing dominance across land, air, sea and space. The only question is whether the U.S. will achieve that dominance before our adversaries do.
What we need
A more recent thriller, “Angel Has Fallen” (2019), is noteworthy for its portrayal of a deadly attack that directed-energy weapons could have thwarted. In one scene, a swarm of explosive drones surrounds the U.S. president, dive bombing and killing members of his security detail.
Only 14 months after this film was released, these swarms of so-called suicide drones transitioned from Hollywood special effects to a real and urgent threat to our military. In October, a Chinese defense contractor test-launched a swarm of suicide drones and published a troubling video demonstration.
High-power microwave weapons on the battlefield could neutralize dozens of drones over very short time periods by disabling their electronic sensors and motors — an approach that the Joint Counter Small UAS Office is considering.
Against a single drone, lasers can blind (or “dazzle”) its sensors at much greater ranges, impairing its ability to locate a target and disabling it without destruction. Last year, the Navy announced the installation of a laser dazzler aboard the destroyer Dewey (the “Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy,” aka ODIN), demonstrating that dazzlers are not a hypothetical: They are a reality. The Navy expects to have eight warships in total equipped with ODIN within the next three years. The Pentagon’s next challenge will be to accelerate the testing and deployment of laser dazzlers on other combat vehicles.
What the future could hold
No discussion of laser weapons in Hollywood would be complete without mentioning “Star Trek,” famous for its depiction since the 1960s of hand-held “phasers” that can be set to “stun” or “kill.”
These phasers are noteworthy because their size is years ahead of our technology. “Star Trek” accurately depicts laser weapons’ inherent capability to be dialed from lethal to nonlethal against a variety of targets, which is an important advantage for any military because not every situation warrants lethal force.
And today’s laser weapons are far from hand-held. Ones used outside a laboratory environment are integrated onto massive vehicles, including eight-wheeled, armored Stryker vehicles, very large aircraft, and Navy warships. The greatest challenge to the miniaturization of directed-energy systems is the size and weight of the power and thermal management subsystems needed to operate these weapons. A “Star Trek”-like version of a hand-held directed-energy device will remain technically impossible in the near term. But the movie phasers do illustrate the potential to calibrate DE weapons to different threats.
Where we go next
“Back to the Future” (1985) predicted flying cars and time travel by 2015. While we’re not quite there, we’ve made significant strides in advancing technologies once considered far-fetched. Movie scenes depicting laser technology underscore two common points about directed-energy innovation.
First, reducing the size, power, weight and cost requirements for these weapons over time will require annual funding increases for directed-energy research and development and a resultant expansion of the industrial base and supply chain. Congressional funding for directed energy stands at about $1 billion per year. An increase to $2 billion per year would have enormous impact.
Second, the U.S. urgently needs its best and brightest minds to join in the fight to innovate faster than adversaries. The process of miniaturizing laser weapons could take years, but American ingenuity could make it possible. For proof, look no further than your smartphone. The first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer — built during World War II — was so large that it occupied a 50-by-30 foot basement. As we overcome the size, weight and power challenges preventing the miniaturization of directed-energy systems, they’ll become more accessible and viable for smaller vehicles.
Directed energy is a highly disruptive technology. The country that can develop and field this technology at scale first will have a distinct, strategic advantage with the ability to defeat a range of threats, from swarms of drones to hypersonic missiles flying at more than five times the speed of sound. That’s why the next generation of defense technology should not be a small evolution — it should be a revolution. Now is the time to convert directed energy from movie magic to military might before our adversaries.
Henry A. “Trey” Obering III is an executive vice president and directed energy lead at Booz Allen Hamilton and the former director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.