Sat. May 27th, 2023

Why This Matters

There is a surge in interest in directed power weapons from a number of 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 provide capabilities that standard weapons might 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 contain 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 distinct approaches. For instance, they can temporarily degrade electronics on a drone or physically destroy it. See our 2022 Spotlight for additional facts on counter-drone technologies.

How does it function? Every sort of DEW utilizes a distinct 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 distinct 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 frequently discussed in terms of their energy output—the quantity of electromagnetic power transferred more than time. Although DEWs use electromagnetic power equivalent to every day products, such as household microwaves, their energy output is vastly greater, as described under.

Higher power lasers create a extremely narrow beam of light, commonly in the infrared to visible area, and are commonly applied on one particular target at a time. The beam can be pulsed or continuous, producing 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 in between 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 as a result can have an effect on numerous targets at after.

Higher energy microwave weapons create microwaves, which have longer wavelengths than higher power lasers and millimeter wave weapons. These weapons can create additional than one hundred megawatts of energy, which is practically 150,000 occasions additional potent than the typical household microwave. Like millimeter wave weapons, they can also have an effect on numerous targets due to the fact of their bigger beam size.

Every DEW can create a variety of effects from nonlethal to lethal, based on aspects such as the time on target, the distance to the target, and even the component 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 begin with temporarily stopping use of an asset or its access to an region and enhance to destruction of the asset if vital (see fig. two).

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

DEWs can deny entrance to an region or avoid enemy forces or assets from functioning inside an region. DEWs applied for denial do not result in lengthy-term harm to targets, and when enemy forces or assets leave the region, they commonly regain function or the impact is mitigated. For instance, the Division of Defense’s (DOD) Active Denial Method utilizes 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 folks 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 particular person or a sensor’s capacity to see or sense by emitting a glare—called dazzling. Dazzling can act as a non-verbal warning just before 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 efficiently, 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 crucial to enabling the 2018 National Defense Technique and reported spending about $1 billion annually for the final three years on analysis and improvement. The U.S. military has tested a selection of DEW prototypes because 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 enhance the energy output of DEWs to engage additional potent targets—like missiles. Nonetheless, 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 lots of countries—including the U.S.—and is at the moment experiencing a surge worldwide. This surge stems in component from advances in technologies and a want to preserve competitiveness on the battlefield. Technological innovations, such as the improvement of smaller sized lasers that are safer to operate, allow modern day DEWs to be substantially additional transportable and sensible. For instance, a 4-wheel all-terrain automobile can now hold a higher power laser potent adequate 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 quickly and potentially much 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 desires from nonlethal to lethal responses. For instance, the longer a laser is focused on target, the additional harm or destruction will take place.
  • Advancing other utilizes. Study and improvement for DEWs could also advantage civilian utilizes. For instance, the improvement of greater power lasers could assistance projects that use directed power to transport or “beam” energy to remote and disadvantaged areas.


  • Technological limitations. DEWs are frequently much less powerful the farther they are from the target, and atmospheric circumstances and cooling specifications can limit their effectiveness. For instance, fog and storms can minimize laser beam variety and high quality.
  • Battlefield use. Choices about how and when to use DEWs or standard weapons might be difficult. For instance, wider beam DEWs, such as higher energy microwave or millimeter wave weapons, have an effect on all assets in an region, regardless of whether pal or foe. 
  • Ethical and overall health issues. Even though there are potentially relevant international laws and suggestions, their applicability to DEWs is not usually effectively defined. Uncertainty about lengthy-term overall health effects of DEWs on men and women 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 assistance bridge the gap in between DEW improvement and acquisition?
  • What actions could policymakers take to make certain there is acceptable guidance for applying DEWs as the technologies matures?
  • What are the trade-offs of applying nonlethal DEW technologies just before possible overall health effects are completely understood?

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

By Editor