Weapons usually get their power from the explosion of one object near other objects, one object hitting another object (hard), or both. But some devices don’t need to shoot bullets or blow up: They blast out photons — mysterious, massless particle waves of electromagnetic energy.
Photons come in plenty of varieties: They can be X-rays or gamma rays or UV rays or optical light waves or infrared radiation or microwaves or radio waves. And some photon “ammo,” particularly microwaves and lasers, can act like electromagnetic bullets, damaging or disabling the high-tech targets in their sights — whether those be drones, satellites, small ships, or, hypothetically, Roombas.
Tools that shoot this unusual ammo are called directed energy weapons. And their various forms can, at least in theory, jam electronics, blind sensors, fry circuits, sear holes, and generally trigger non-kinetic chaos.
The U.S. military has long been interested in harnessing those destructive capabilities, to varying degrees of success. Today, the Air Force leads the charge, and the Directed Energy Directorate at Albuquerque’s Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) spends its time, in part, developing weapons that use beams of photons to punch things they don’t like.
In its quest to create these destructors, the AFRL has joined forces with local researchers at the University of New Mexico to create the Directed Energy Center. There, students and professors conduct Air Force-relevant research and feed the pipeline of scientists who can work on the aforementioned drone-disabling and satellite-pew-pewing. These teams could also benefit the scholarly and commercial worlds in fields ranging from medicine to mining.
Through their hard work, these students could make elusive DE weapons a more viable military option: Despite more than five decades of research, these gizmos haven’t seen as much progress as some labs had hoped. Now, they might finally be coming into their own.
It’s not hard to see why scientists keep trying. Laser weapons could shoot down enemy drones, rockets, and mortars, or “dazzle” satellites — a flighty way of saying “make them confused and unable to see straight.” And microwave weapons could mess with electronics and communications over a larger area, making them ideal for disabling swarms of drones.
That latter threat is of particular concern to the Air Force these days. Drones can provide enemies with low-cost surveillance, or serve as a weapon system capable of great harm at long ranges. “As they become more proficient and technically mature, it’s important that there’s a safe way to protect the air bases,” says AFRL’s Adrian Lucero. DE weapons are on their way to accomplishing that — and amping up the energy off of the battlefield, too.
Failure to launch
Directed energy weapons didn’t always feel so close to fruition. The federal government has looked into DE since the 1960s, but there hasn’t historically been that much to show for it.
While the Department of Defense has recently made progress on photonic weapons, in the past it has invested billions in directed energy programs that stalled and were ultimately axed, as noted in a September report by the Congressional Research Service.
You may be familiar with one of the most infamous DE boondoggles: Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which the Clinton administration shuttered in 1993. Known mockingly on the street as Star Wars, the program aimed to create, among other infrastructure, DE weapons that could shoot down missiles … from space.
Yeah, you’re not the only one who finds it unrealistic. In 1987, several years into the program, an American Physical Society study group concluded that such DE programs were decades from being operationally viable.
Many scientists wanted nothing to do with the program.
Nevertheless, the government poured millions of dollars into SDI. Much of that work consisted of basic research conducted at universities. In fact, for some physics and engineering researchers, the Star Wars checkbook offered “one of the few available sources for new funds,” noted a 1988 United Nations University publication.
But many scientists wanted nothing to do with the program or its bucks, in part decrying the military secrecy around some of the work. Some 6,500 researchers signed a pledge promising not to work on Star Wars, calling it “ill-conceived and dangerous.”
Edl Schamiloglu, head of the collaborative Directed Energy Center at the University of New Mexico, was doing his Ph.D. research at the time. Back then, he and his colleagues aimed to harness energy from atomic fusion using “pulsed-power technology.”
Here’s how it worked: Devices like capacitors accumulate a bunch of low-power electrical energy over time and then discharge it all at once in a rapid burst to coax atoms to combine. In 1987, though, Reagan canceled the program that funded Schamiloglu’s research.
Schamiloglu needed to pivot, and he had already heard of DE through his pulsed-power work. He previously used pulsed power to make protons; to work on DE, he just needed to apply the same sort of instrumentation to produce electrons, whose energy could be converted to microwaves. “The technology is the same,” Schamiloglu says.
Later, with equipment donated from the Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, Schamiloglu put his own microwave factory together. Then he took that information to the AFRL director, who provided Schamiloglu with some seed funding.
He’s been working on DE ever since at UNM — one of the few universities with this electromagnetic specialization. But this field is picking up in part because associated weapons technology has recently moved in a more mature direction.
For instance, in 2014, the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System became the Navy’s first operational laser weapon.
Five years later, Air Force microwave and laser weapons took down some drones in New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range. And this past spring, a Navy laser shooter knocked out a fake cruise missile, in that same desert, where scientists also tested the first nuclear weapon.
Do I look to be in a gaming mood?
AFRL is now developing a weapon called THOR: the Tactical High-Power Operational Responder. THOR uses high-power microwaves to mess up electronics, a concept you essentially understand if you’ve ever (for some reason) tried to nuke your cellphone.
After THOR — which lives inside a 20-foot shipping container and can hitch rides around the world on C-130 aircraft — sets a target, an operator pulls the trigger and releases a burst of microwaves that last merely a nanosecond. Its ideal “enemy”: a swarm of small drones.
Last year, a test revealed that THOR’s microwaves could indeed knock things out of the sky. It worked very well, “neutralizing” objects 100 percent of the time.
Now, AFRL wants to amp up DE research for the next generation of scientists.
That goal also appealed to Schamiloglu at the University of New Mexico. He wanted the school to take a closer look at laser DE, since it had long focused on microwaves.
After the Air Force and UNM teamed up, legislators designated money in the AFRL budget to back UNM’s Directed Energy Center, which aims to train future pew-pew gurus. “They will work not only at the Air Force Research Lab, but at the numerous contractors that support the research that’s ongoing,” says Matthew Fetrow, technology outreach lead at AFRL.
It’s not all light
These scientists have plenty to improve on: While DE weapons are faring better than they have in the past, they’re not perfect. They can be stymied by natural forces like rain and fog — the water in the air can mess with their beams, kind of like it does with your headlights. These systems can also be big and cumbersome. Sometimes, they’re super power-hungry.
Outside of all that tech trouble, the weapons raise some ethical concerns. International law doesn’t deal much with DE, and regulations may be important to help ensure it’s used responsibly and humanely. There is a UN document, “Article 1 of the Protocol on Blinding Lasers,” which states that no one can use “laser weapons specifically designed, as their sole combat function or as one of their combat functions, to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.”
Research into DE technology isn’t just useful on the battlefield. For example, industrial giant Honeywell has a whole division dedicated to directed energy’s commercial applications.
These span everything from fusion energy to laser welding and cutting. The company is also interested in the same cooling systems that keep DE weapons chill: Those can ice down batteries and radars anywhere.
Research into DE technology isn’t just useful on the battlefield.
On the academic side, particle accelerators also need highly focused, extremely energetic beams of particles, which can improve with advances in beams of pure energy. At Purdue University, a researcher named Allen Garner invented a microwave device in 2021 that has equal utility for quirking enemy electronics, sterilizing medical equipment, and performing noninvasive medical procedures (snip-pew snip-pew).
Then, there are the less obvious applications. “We’ve actually been seeing some interesting concepts come forward from companies — in particular, small companies — looking at using microwaves, high-power sources, to help in mining,” says Fetrow of AFRL, “which surprised the daylights out of me.”
Right now, AFRL and UNM’s joint focus is on increasing the power you can get out of both microwave and laser systems. With microwaves, that involves building better amplifiers, which are essentially volume knobs. As for lasers, they’re trying to improve the fiber-optic cables that whip up the light beams. “The holy grail right now is to really push the power, how much power can you generate from these fiber lasers,” says Schamiloglu.
But researchers are in a bind: As power increases, so does heat, and the glass in the system gets too warm. UNM has been working on novel ways to cool those fibers, so the laser can pump out even more power.
AFRL is also working on the next generation of THOR technology that’s meant to be lighter and more energy-efficient. It goes by the name Mjölnir, THOR’s mighty hammer — “THOR’s Massless Hammer” apparently wasn’t catchy enough.
It may take a while before such a hammer can be hurled on the battlefield, but in the coming decades, the battlefield could start to resemble a sci-fi flick.