Most people are familiar with directed energy weapons through the legacies of such epic cinema productions as Star Wars and Buck Rogers. After the real-time pursuit of these weapons, Reagan administration opponents argued that the much maligned Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program epitomized everything that was wrong with defense acquisitions.
Fascination with the potential offensive and defensive capability of focused light beams is said to have originated from the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 B.C. Ancient writings tell of how Archimedes constructed a hexagonal mirror, as part of a complex that included more distant quadrangular mirrors, manipulated by a network of hinges. This complex concentrated the sun’s light to an intensity that incinerated objects an arrow’s flight away. With this device, Archimedes is credited with setting fire to the entire Roman fleet, thus saving his homeland.
In more recent times, renowned (but now mostly forgotten) scientist, Nicola Tesla, presented a detailed schema for directed energy weaponry that he considered to be “teleforce” weapons. The press sensationalized his plans with the moniker, “the Death Ray.” His detailed research was published in 1937 under the title,”The Art of Projecting Concentrated Non-dispersive Energy through the Natural Media.” Tesla enthusiastically explained that:
[The nozzle would] send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.
But much like the scientists who labored on Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, Telsa innocently dreamt that his horrendous device would be the catalyst that would make war obsolete, and lead all rational stakeholders to the path of world peace. He attempted to sell his device to the American and European defense establishments, but found no buyers. For many subsequent decades, directed energy weapon research languished due to the inability to construct a power generation device more portable than a stationary nuclear power plant, and the nearly game-ending inability to prevent “blooming,” that is the plasma breakdown that air – as a conductor – experiences in collision with incredibly massive amounts of high intensity thermal energy.
While hopes for yesteryear’s larger-than-life projects survive most frequently in the hearts of die-hard enthusiasts, current research focuses on more immediate, practical applications that might not exclude currently ongoing conflicts. This new generation of weapons may include devices produced by Ionatron, a US-based publicly traded company that developed the Joint IED Neutralizer (JIN) to safely neutralize IEDs in war zones. Even with extremely successful tests that destroyed 90% of the IEDs, bureaucratic red tape delayed the launch of this remarkable, arguably defensive, tool. The US military has also created a multimillion dollar research-and-develop program to develop nonlethal energy weapons for use in international hot spots.
The Pulsed Energy Projectile system (PEP), while apparently not yet deployed, has already drawn ire from human rights activists due to its ability to introduce intense pain from distances of 2-km using microwaves. Not limited to combat scenarios, the PEP was intended to quell riots, and to induce maximum pain, without subsequent tissue damage.
Click here to see it being tested on US soldiers simulating a civil disturbance.
While the current directed energy weapon systems are a vastly scaled down version than those envisioned in science fiction films, or even the imagination of early 20th century scientists such as Tesla, their application on some scale seems a matter of certainty. Whether they can stop determined pirates is another matter.