Science & Tech Spotlight: Directed Power Weapons

Why This Matters

There is a surge in interest in directed power weapons from quite a few nations—including the U.S.—primarily for counter drone missions. These weapons use electromagnetic power to result in effects ranging from deterrence to destruction. They supply capabilities that standard weapons may perhaps 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. As opposed to weapons that fire bullets or missiles, DEWs can respond to a threat in diverse methods. For instance, they can temporarily degrade electronics on a drone or physically destroy it. See our 2022 Spotlight for additional information and facts on counter-drone technologies.

How does it perform? Every single kind of DEW makes use of a diverse area of the electromagnetic spectrum (see fig. 1). This spectrum describes all of the sorts of light—including these the human eye can not see—and classifies them according to wavelength. Distinctive varieties 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 typically discussed in terms of their energy output—the quantity of electromagnetic power transferred more than time. Even though DEWs use electromagnetic power comparable to daily products, such as household microwaves, their energy output is vastly greater, as described under.

Higher power lasers generate a extremely narrow beam of light, generally in the infrared to visible area, and are normally 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 occasions higher than a standard laser pointer and is capable of melting steel.

Millimeter wave weapons have wavelengths amongst 1 and ten millimeters and produce additional than 1 kilowatt of energy. Millimeter wave weapons have a bigger beam size than higher power lasers and for that reason can influence a number of targets at after.

Higher energy microwave weapons generate microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than higher power lasers and millimeter wave weapons. These weapons can generate additional than one hundred megawatts of energy, which is almost 150,000 occasions additional strong than the typical household microwave. Like millimeter wave weapons, they can also influence a number of targets since of their bigger beam size.

Every single DEW can generate 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 get started with temporarily stopping use of an asset or its access to an region and improve to destruction of the asset if required (see fig. two).

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

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

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

If a higher quantity of force is needed, 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 successfully, 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 study projects to prototypes tested in the field. DOD named DEWs as a technologies important to enabling the 2018 National Defense Technique and reported spending about $1 billion annually for the final three years on study and improvement. The U.S. military has tested a range of DEW prototypes considering the fact that 2014, mainly for counter-drone missions. For instance, the Air Force’s prototype Tactical Higher Energy Microwave Operational Responder (THOR) not too long ago completed two years of testing. DOD is researching methods to improve the energy output of DEWs to engage additional strong targets—like missiles. Nonetheless, as GAO not too long ago reported, the U.S. military faces challenges bridging the gap amongst DEW improvement and acquisition, potentially limiting widespread operational use.

Why now? DEW study and improvement has been ongoing for decades in quite a few countries—including the U.S.—and is presently experiencing a surge worldwide. This surge stems in element from advances in technologies and a wish to sustain competitiveness on the battlefield. Technological innovations, such as the improvement of smaller sized lasers that are safer to operate, allow contemporary DEWs to be considerably additional transportable and sensible. For instance, a 4-wheel all-terrain car can now hold a higher power laser strong sufficient to harm drones. The U.S. and 30 other nations are creating DEWs, most for counter-drone missions, according to a 2021 Air Force report.


  • Complement to standard weapons. DEWs use power fired at the speed of light, producing them more rapidly and potentially much less expensive 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 additional harm or destruction will happen.
  • 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 assist projects that use directed power to transport or “beam” energy to remote and disadvantaged areas.


  • Technological limitations. DEWs are frequently much less successful the farther they are from the target, and atmospheric situations and cooling specifications can limit their effectiveness. For instance, fog and storms can lessen laser beam variety and top quality.
  • Battlefield use. Choices about how and when to use DEWs or standard weapons may perhaps be difficult. For instance, wider beam DEWs, such as higher energy microwave or millimeter wave weapons, influence all assets in an region, no matter if pal or foe. 
  • Ethical and wellness issues. Despite the fact that there are potentially relevant international laws and recommendations, their applicability to DEWs is not normally nicely 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 applying DEWs.

Policy Context and Concerns

  • As the technologies matures, what actions could policymakers take to assist bridge the gap amongst DEW improvement and acquisition?
  • What actions could policymakers take to make sure there is acceptable guidance for applying DEWs as the technologies matures?
  • What are the trade-offs of applying nonlethal DEW technologies prior to possible wellness effects are completely understood?

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

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