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Why This Matters

There is a surge in interest in directed power weapons from numerous nations—including the U.S.—primarily for counter drone missions. These weapons use electromagnetic power to bring about effects ranging from deterrence to destruction. They offer you capabilities that traditional weapons could not, but challenges have so far prevented widespread operational use.

The Technologies

What is it? Directed power weapons (DEW) use concentrated electromagnetic power to combat enemy forces and assets. These weapons incorporate higher power lasers and other higher energy electromagnetics—such as millimeter wave and higher energy microwave weapons. In contrast to weapons that fire bullets or missiles, DEWs can respond to a threat in diverse approaches. For instance, they can temporarily degrade electronics on a drone or physically destroy it. See our 2022 Spotlight for much more information and facts on counter-drone technologies.

How does it perform? Every single variety of DEW makes use of a diverse area of the electromagnetic spectrum (see fig. 1). This spectrum describes all of the types of light—including these the human eye can not see—and classifies them according to wavelength. Distinctive kinds of electromagnetic power have diverse properties. For instance, the wavelength impacts what the directed power can penetrate—such as metal or human skin.

Figure 1. Place of directed power weapons on the electromagnetic spectrum.

All DEWs emit power at the speed of light, and are normally discussed in terms of their energy output—the quantity of electromagnetic power transferred more than time. When DEWs use electromagnetic power related to daily products, such as household microwaves, their energy output is vastly greater, as described beneath.

Higher power lasers create a incredibly narrow beam of light, ordinarily in the infrared to visible area, and are usually utilised on one particular target at a time. The beam can be pulsed or continuous, creating a energy output of at least 1 kilowatt. This output is 200,000 instances higher than a common laser pointer and is capable of melting steel.

Millimeter wave weapons have wavelengths in between 1 and ten millimeters and create much more than 1 kilowatt of energy. Millimeter wave weapons have a bigger beam size than higher power lasers and as a result can have an effect on many targets at as soon as.

Higher energy microwave weapons create microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than higher power lasers and millimeter wave weapons. These weapons can create much more than one hundred megawatts of energy, which is practically 150,000 instances much more effective than the typical household microwave. Like millimeter wave weapons, they can also have an effect on many targets since of their bigger beam size.

Every single DEW can create a variety of effects from nonlethal to lethal, based on components such as the time on target, the distance to the target, and even the element of the target on which the DEW is focused. DEWs can use this variety of effects to graduate responses to a threat. A graduated response could commence with temporarily stopping use of an asset or its access to an location and boost to destruction of the asset if important (see fig. two).

Figure two. Examples of graduated responses utilizing directed power weapons.

DEWs can deny entrance to an location or avoid enemy forces or assets from functioning inside an location. DEWs utilised for denial do not bring about lengthy-term harm to targets, and when enemy forces or assets leave the location, they usually regain function or the impact is mitigated. For instance, the Division of Defense’s (DOD) Active Denial Method makes use of millimeter waves that interact with the water and fat molecules in a person’s skin to develop a heating sensation. Throughout testing, the discomfort persuaded people to move away from the location.

DEWs can also degrade the efficacy of an enemy’s assets. For instance, higher power lasers can temporarily overwhelm a particular person or a sensor’s capability to see or sense by emitting a glare—called dazzling. Dazzling can act as a non-verbal warning prior to resorting to enhanced force.

If a higher quantity of force is necessary, DEWs can also harm or destroy enemy assets. To do this, a higher power laser can emit electromagnetic power with a wavelength the target material absorbs most properly, melting the material. The laser could concentrate on a sensor and harm a drone, or concentrate on a fuel tank or battery and destroy it.

How mature is it? DEWs variety in maturity from analysis projects to prototypes tested in the field. DOD named DEWs as a technologies essential to enabling the 2018 National Defense Approach and reported spending about $1 billion annually for the final three years on analysis and improvement. The U.S. military has tested a range of DEW prototypes considering the fact that 2014, mostly for counter-drone missions. For instance, the Air Force’s prototype Tactical Higher Energy Microwave Operational Responder (THOR) lately completed two years of testing. DOD is researching approaches to boost the energy output of DEWs to engage much more effective targets—like missiles. Nevertheless, as GAO lately reported, the U.S. military faces challenges bridging the gap in between DEW improvement and acquisition, potentially limiting widespread operational use.

Why now? DEW analysis and improvement has been ongoing for decades in quite a few countries—including the U.S.—and is at the moment experiencing a surge worldwide. This surge stems in element from advances in technologies and a need to retain competitiveness on the battlefield. Technological innovations, such as the improvement of smaller sized lasers that are safer to operate, allow contemporary DEWs to be a great deal much more transportable and sensible. For instance, a 4-wheel all-terrain car can now hold a higher power laser effective adequate to harm drones. The U.S. and 30 other nations are establishing DEWs, most for counter-drone missions, according to a 2021 Air Force report.


  • Complement to traditional weapons. DEWs use power fired at the speed of light, producing them more rapidly and potentially significantly less pricey per shot than missiles. Some DEWs have practically limitless ammunition and can fire as lengthy as they have energy.
  • Ease of graduated response. DOD can tailor DEWs to meet mission demands from nonlethal to lethal responses. For instance, the longer a laser is focused on target, the much more harm or destruction will take place.
  • Advancing other makes use of. Investigation and improvement for DEWs could also advantage civilian makes use of. For instance, the improvement of greater power lasers could enable projects that use directed power to transport or “beam” energy to remote and disadvantaged places.


  • Technological limitations. DEWs are normally significantly less powerful the farther they are from the target, and atmospheric circumstances and cooling needs can limit their effectiveness. For instance, fog and storms can cut down laser beam variety and good quality.
  • Battlefield use. Choices about how and when to use DEWs or traditional weapons could be difficult. For instance, wider beam DEWs, such as higher energy microwave or millimeter wave weapons, have an effect on all assets in an location, no matter whether buddy or foe. 
  • Ethical and wellness issues. Though there are potentially relevant international laws and suggestions, their applicability to DEWs is not usually effectively defined. Uncertainty about lengthy-term wellness effects of DEWs on persons either intentionally or unintentionally exposed to directed power has led to issues with regards to the ethics of utilizing DEWs.

Policy Context and Queries

  • As the technologies matures, what actions could policymakers take to enable bridge the gap in between DEW improvement and acquisition?
  • What actions could policymakers take to make sure there is suitable guidance for utilizing DEWs as the technologies matures?
  • What are the trade-offs of utilizing nonlethal DEW technologies prior to possible wellness effects are totally understood?

For much more information and facts, make contact with: Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or

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