Air Force Directed Energy Report Argues Defensive Force Fields May Be “Just On The Horizon”

The Air Force Research Laboratory argues that we’ve hit a tipping point with directed energy technologies, bringing many science fiction concepts closer to reality.

byBrett Tingley|
Lasers photo


The Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base has released a new analysis of the Department of Defense’s investments into directed energy technologies, or DE. The report, titled “Directed Energy Futures 2060,” makes predictions about what the state of DE weapons and applications will be 40 years from now and offers a range of scenarios in which the United States might find itself either leading the field in DE or lagging behind peer-state adversaries. In examining the current state of the art of this relatively new class of weapons, the authors claim that the world has reached a “tipping point” in which directed energy is now critical to successful military operations.

One of the document’s most eyebrow-raising predictions is that a “force field” could be created by “a sufficiently large fleet or constellation of high-altitude DEW systems” that could provide a "missile defense umbrella, as part of a layered defense system, if such concepts prove affordable and necessary.” The report cites several existing examples of what it calls “force fields,” including the Active Denial System, or “pain ray,” as well as non-kinetic counter-drone systems, and potentially counter-missile systems, that use high-power microwaves to disable or destroy their targets. Most intriguingly, the press release claims that “the concept of a DE weapon creating a localized force field may be just on the horizon.”

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In a press release accompanying the document, AFRL’s Directed Energy Deputy Chief Scientist Jeremy Murray-Krezan adds that current directed energy technology is “not quite Star Wars," but adds that the AFRL is "getting close.” The document describes advances occurring both in the private sector and the Department of Defense that are driving the size and weight of DE systems down while increasing power, making the kinds of weapons dreamed about in science fiction seem more like reality. The authors describe the concept in more detail:

The “holy grail” from a military utility perspective is a DE weapon system effective enough, favorable from a SWAP perspective, and affordable enough to provide a nuclear/missile umbrella. Although a concept often associated with science fiction, in fact ground and ship-based DE defense systems effectively act like point-localized force fields against small and relatively soft targets today. Airborne and space-based DE platforms could achieve a greater area defense and multipoint defenses, for a broader coverage missile umbrella.

“By 2060 we can predict that DE systems will become more effective, and this idea of a force field includes methods to destroy other threats too,” Murray-Krezan said in the press release. “Eventually there may be potential to achieve the penultimate goal of a Nuclear or ballistic missile umbrella. It’s fun to think about what that might be in 2060, but we don't want to speculate too much.”


However, in the full report, the authors point out that “these concepts require significant technical advancement by 2060 to achieve the full range of power contemplated.” 

Murray-Krezan states in the accompanying press release that the document was intended to be somewhat of a thought experiment, but one based on current trends. “We’re painting with broad strokes, but we're diving into what missions of the future will look like,” said Murray-Krezan. “DE is uniquely suited for an area of growing importance, nondestructive but damaging, disruptive, and denial of operations,” Murray-Krezan said. “Not every military operation has to result in a smoking hole in the ground for it to be successful.”

A tiered, layered defense concept put forward by the U.S. Army which includes directed energy weapons., U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center

The report was written by the AFRL’s Office of the Chief Scientist for DE for the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense’s Directed Energy Community of Interest. Contributions were also made by the Naval Research Laboratory, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Joint Intermediate Force Capabilities Office, Los Alamos, Sandia, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, and a variety of partners in academia, the private sector, and NATO affiliated allies.

In the press release accompanying the report, AFRL states that the document was intended to “bring together some of the most innovative thinkers in DE to build a plan to keep our warfighters and our country safe.” The document defines directed energy as “a focused beam of electro-magnetic energy that is used to enable or create military effects, when used in conjunction with other military systems, including kinetic weapons.” Several different types of DE systems are cited in this definition including are lasers, radio frequency devices, high power microwave, millimeter wave, and particle beams. The report states that these can be used to create at least five different military effects: “deny, degrade, damage, destroy, or deceive.”

The Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS) undergoing tests at the High Energy Laser System Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range., AFRL/Keith Lewis

Among the report’s key findings is that “due to the convergence of trends in technology and the evolution of the battlefield, DE military capabilities have reached or passed a tipping point in their criticality to the successful execution of cross-domain, military operations by the U.S., Allies, and current and potential rivals and adversaries.” The report also adds that these peer-state rivals are “challenging U.S. leadership in military DE capabilities” but that the AFRL is “moving aggressively to retain U.S. DE leadership.”

A recent primer on directed energy technologies published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) notes a few examples of these peer adversary capabilities, including anti-satellite microwave weapons being developed in Russia and China. The CRS adds that “Some analysts have questioned whether DOD has sufficient knowledge of adversary DE weapons systems and materials to develop its weapons requirements.”

The AFRL report claims that the proliferation and advancement of DE technologies among superpowers will be driven by three pressing military needs:

• Information superiority operations that promise control of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic spectrum superiority in a conflict requires EW or DE weaponry.

• Capability to project military power faster, at longer stand-off ranges, and efficiently, as part of an integrated layered defense which includes command and control, ISR, cyber, and kinetic weapons.

• Unique, intermediate force, special operations, and potentially space-based missions that require flexibility, scalability, and precision effects across all domains and phases of conflict.

The report's authors argue that U.S. military leadership should instead remember the costly arms races of the Cold War and understand that “technological and military investment can drive national costs to unacceptable levels.” To ensure this doesn’t happen, the authors note that “there must be continued assessment of DE’s value.”

A Multi-Mission High Energy Laser (MMHEL) prototype aboard a U.S. Army Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle., U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center

The idea of a force field is still a science-fiction-inspired flight of fantasy, but heavier-than-air flight was also considered by some mainstream scientists to be a crazy idea only a little more than a century ago. There is also the reality that much of what is being developed on the cutting-edge in the directed energy space remains classified.

Still, from all indications, we're still a ways away from being able to fully realize these types of directed energy capabilities, but the Air Force Research Laboratory and other labs are clearly trying to envision future applications of more advanced versions of current DE concepts. It may be a stretch to call an automated high-powered microwave counter-drone system a "force field," but at least some parallels can be drawn between the concepts. In fact, if such a system were built to be omnidirectional in nature, it would perform a bit like a force field as we see it in science fiction. Regardless, for a good primer of what is possible now and what is possible in the future when it comes to directed energy, check out this in-depth interview of ours

Ultimately, this new report by the AFRL shows just show promising directed energy capabilities are finally becoming to the battlefield of today, forcefields or not. If we have indeed already crossed the "tipping point" claimed in the article, the wars of the future are certainly going to resemble what has previously been seen only in science fiction.

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