Congressional Research Service - Department of Defense Directed Energy Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress - September 28, 2021
Directed energy (DE) weapons use concentrated electromagnetic energy, rather than kinetic energy, to combat enemy forces. Although the United States has been researching directed energy since the 1960s, some experts have observed that the Department of Defense (DOD) has invested billions of dollars in DE programs that failed to reach maturity and were ultimately cancelled. In recent years, however, DOD has made progress on DE weapons development, deploying the first operational U.S. DE weapon in 2014 aboard the USS Ponce. Since then, DE weapons development has continued, with DOD issuing a Directed Energy Roadmap to coordinate the department’s efforts. DOD has also introduced a High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative, which seeks to strengthen the defense industrial base for DE weapons and improve laser beam quality and efficiency.
This report provides background information and issues for Congress on DE weapons, including high-energy lasers (HELs) and high-powered microwave (HPM) weapons, and outlines selected unclassified DOD, Air Force, Army, and Navy DE programs. If successfully fielded, HELs could be used by ground forces in a range of missions, including short-range air defense (SHORAD); counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS); and counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) missions. HPM weapons could provide a non-kinetic means of disabling adversary electronics and communications systems. Compared with traditional munitions, DE weapons could offer lower logistical requirements, lower costs per shot, and—assuming access to a sufficient power supply—deeper magazines. These weapons could, however, face a number of limitations not faced by their kinetic counterparts. For example, atmospheric conditions (e.g., rain, fog, obscurants) could potentially limit the range and beam quality of DE weapons, in turn reducing their effectiveness.