How Energy Pulses Might Rebalance Modern Warfare

Author : Mike Green - Editor, EPDT

27 June 2024

Caption: An RF-based DEW unit [Image source: UK Ministry of Defence]
Caption: An RF-based DEW unit [Image source: UK Ministry of Defence]

The crossover between engineering and military endeavour goes back countless centuries. In addition to being an accomplished artist, Leonardo Da Vinci also designed siege engines and other forms of apparatus for deployment in conflicts between the noble houses of medieval Italy. Many years later, Nikola Tesla’s unmatched understanding of electro-magnetic technology would allow him to conceptualise the ground-breaking idea of an energy ray capable of knocking aircraft out of the sky. Wernher von

Wernher von Braun would design rockets that would change the face of warfare dramatically, as well as initiating space exploration.

Though all of us undoubtedly want to see a more peaceful world, the worry is that threats now being placed on human lives are probably greater than ever. The advent of drones, for example, has made guerilla warfare and acts of terrorism increasingly prevalent - with the ability to injury civilians, as well as seriously damaging military equipment and critical infrastructure, being made much easier.

So as to address this issue, research into directed energy weaponry (DEW) has been scaled up significantly over the course of the last decade. Very much akin to Tesla’s musings from almost a hundred years ago, this relies on electro-magnetic technology - with targeted beams or pulses of energy being utilised to cause operational disruption or malfunction in electronic systems, instead of launching conventional projectiles (such as missiles, etc.).

A recent presentation I attended, given by QinetiQ’s Dr. Richard Hoad, highlighted the potential of this technology. As he explained, access to relatively inexpensive hardware has levelled the playing field and made potential targets easier to hit. Furthermore, the protecting of such targets often calls for a disproportionate amount of effort and financial outlay - with large-scale armaments, that could cost millions, needed for conducting countermeasures on items that may only be worth a fraction of that figure.

Via DEW, it will be possible to implement defences which are better aligned with the military threat. That will mean effective protection can be offered without having to overspend. 

As Dr. Hoad pointed out, alongside relatively low capital costs, DEW has several other notable advantages over conventional armaments. Among these are its deep magazine, as you don’t have to keep on supplying ammunition to the DEW system. All it needs is an adequate accompanying energy source and it can keep running indefinitely. Also, action takes place at light speed, and for certain forms it’s therefore difficult for the enemy to pinpoint where an attack is coming from, so there’s very little opportunity to respond or implement a counterattack. Equipment may be operated by a single person, so allocation of military personnel would be a relatively minor concern. Furthermore, this approach is focused on having an impact upon the functionality of military/terrorist hardware, rather than causing harm to humans - so there’s an ethical aspect to factor in too.

DEW can take several different forms. The ones currently seeing in-depth investigation are either optoelectronic-based; using a high-energy laser (HEL) output, or wireless-based; relying on the emission of radio frequency (RF) pulses. For the RF approach, high-power microwave (HPM) sources (such as magnetrons) will generate the energy pulses (normally in the 30mm to 300mm wavelength range), with >100MW power levels being achieved. High-gain antennas are responsible for concentrating the output produced. 

Both these technologies have appeal. The laser approach can offer a longer range than the RF alternative (which is limited to <2km). However, the RF option has the advantage of not being affected by adverse weather conditions (like rain or fog) as laser-based DEW is, plus it’s much harder to locate the source from where the energy pulses are emanating.

Here in the UK, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its contract partners are putting a considerable amount of their research resources into DEW - with companies like Thales, BAE Systems, Leonardo and Qinetic all being involved. The high-profile DragonFire project, which is focused on developing laser-based DEW hardware, has already gained a lot of press attention. It is supported by £350 million in funding - coming from a mixture of government finances and private sector investment. Capable of producing a high-energy output, with its frequency being adjustable as required, the Team Hersa RF-based DEW defence system is also very close to the military deployment stage.

It’s clear that both RF-based and laser-based DEW units could complement conventional forms of weaponry. They can make equipment, such as drones, inoperable - requiring a hard reset, or in some cases suffering permanent damage that cannot be rectified. Though large units have already been developed, the challenge now is to miniaturise these, so that they are better aligned with size weight and power (SWaP) demands that are commonplace on the battlefield.

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