The South Asia Channel

Directed Energy Weapons, India's Strategic Game Changer?

South Asia's strategic scene is currently oscillating between maintaining deterrence stability while at the same time pursuing technology innovation and modernization through the induction of new strategic weapon systems. The defense research and development community in India has often argued that there shall be a perceptible shift over to non-contact wars in the future, and this situation necessitates maintaining India's credible minimum deterrent, enhancing deterrent survivability, and augmenting its preclusion value. While the importance of technology, both, in strategy and war, cannot be emphasized anymore than it already has been, it is plausible to argue that the use of technology is far more critical than the technology itself.

The future weapon system that is likely to change the course of war is the Directed Energy Weapon (DEW), which is created on electromagnetic pulse effects, in addition to a variety of other means, without a nuclear blast.* DEWs can be termed as the apex in weapons technology innovatory, apt for dealing with all kinds of asymmetric challenges, including unmanned and light aircraft. DEWs are capable of destroying a target by emitting and transferring extreme levels of energy towards the target. The energy emitted by DEWs can be available in the form of electromagnetic radiation, microwaves, lasers and masers, and particles with mass.* DEWs encompass two distinct fields; high-energy lasers and high power microwaves.

Using laser beams and other concentrated sources, DEWs are the future in so far as military laser (acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation") technologies are concerned. Of these, laser weapons by far lead the DEWs pack. The precision of a laser beam weapon is unrivalled primarily owing to its speed, akin to that of light. DEWs are fast racing towards being the most sought after option in comparison to conventional projectile weapons including missile systems, given their accuracy as mentioned earlier, and the range of these weapons, which is far greater than any conventional munitions.

The applicability of laser weapons, more specifically against aerial and naval targets is significant, although the range is subject to meeting certain vital variables including atmospheric conditions and availability of power. Laser weapons can produce a series of strikes, which can be limited only by its power supply. From a military application point of view, a laser weapon is required to generate at the least, a 100-Kilowatt beam. More importantly, for targeting anti-ship missiles, the laser device is required to generate at least one Megawatt of power.

The DEWs aim without using a projectile, and are far more cost effective in comparison to the huge cost estimates surrounding a single missile launch. With military technology innovation on fast track mode, laser weapons are the tool of the future, albeit having to overcome certain looming challenges. These include, determining the final potency of the beam, which gets affected considerably by atmospheric conditions such as clouds, rain, and smog. The laser device requires an expedient source of abundant electricity generation, in addition to efficient cooling equipment that would aid in avoiding any damage caused by overheating.

The advanced weapon development roadmap of the Indian Ministry of Defence till 2020-25 places DEWs as a top priority. The Indian Ministry of Defence's Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) - a joint service headquarters of all three services of the Indian Armed Forces, namely the Army, Navy, and Air Force - acts as the point organization for integration of policy, doctrine, war fighting, and procurement. DEWs have been identified by HQ IDS as the key thrust area until 2025 in its Technology Perspective and Capability Roadmap, a document that intends to provide to the Indian defense industry, (both public and private sector), an overview of the direction in which the Armed Forces intend to head in terms of capability over the next 15 years, which in turn would drive contemporary and future technologies' developmental processes. In terms of laser weapons, the ultimate objective set to be achieved by India should be that these weapons be carried by the three services' platforms including fighters, naval destroyers, and submarines.

India is currently working upon a series of DEWs to improve its anti-ballistic missile capability. According to officials at the Laser Science and Technology Center (LASTEC), a laboratory developing lasers and related technologies, belonging to the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) - an agency under India's Ministry of Defence working on various areas of military technology while striving to meet cutting edge weapons technology requirements - a laser weapon (one among the DEWs pack) could fire a beam with a potency of 25 kilowatts to intercept and destruct an incoming ballistic missile in its terminal phase within the range of seven kilometers (4.3 miles). The targeting laser beam raises the shell temperature of the ballistic missile to 400+ degrees Fahrenheit, as a consequence of which the ballistic missile would explode.

Work is also in progress for a 100-kilowatt solid-state laser system to eliminate missiles that are in their boost phase. Besides, LASTEC, functioning under the DRDO, with a mandate to develop DEWs for the Indian Armed Forces, announced in 2010 that it was developing a vehicle-mounted gas dynamic laser-based DEW system under its Aditya project, slated for completion by 2013. Having already overshot its time stipulation, this project is still a work in progress. Once ready, the Aditya project will be a technology demonstrator to prove beam control technology. Last, LASTEC will commence developing solid-state lasers, for which no timeline has yet been set, at least in the public domain.

Although the DRDO, the premier arm of the Ministry of Defence, has made ambitious technology announcements, it needs to be underscored that the plans to develop these high-powered laser weapons are still in their nascent stage. India, not surprisingly, is expected to be confronted with DEWs related research and development bottlenecks, beginning with the expected deficient funding. Post overcoming this challenge, perhaps the most mounting test would be to master the laser's targeting and tracking system.

While the DRDO has identified DEWs as among key thrust technologies for the next decade, the effort to develop and transform superior technology into affordable and critical military capabilities, decisive factors such as affordability, suitability, dual use, technology base, and modular design will be uphill tasks. Perhaps the greatest technical challenge for the DRDO would come in the form of finding reliable and affordable system integration meeting military platform requirements. Presently, India's DEWs system are in the research and development stage, and the earliest timeline for them to move out from the laboratory to the battlefield for operational testing and subsequent deployment, going by current trends, should likely be around 2025 or even later.

Dr. Monika Chansoria is a senior fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, the autonomous think tank of the Indian Army in New Delhi and her latest book is titled Nuclear China: A Veiled Secret. Follow her on Twitter: @MonikaChansoria

*Correction, Aug. 20, 2014: The Directed Energy Weapon is created on electromagnetic pulse effects, in addition to a variety of other means, without a nuclear blast. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated only electromagnetic pulse effects. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, Aug. 20, 2014: The energy emitted by Directed Energy Weapons can be available in the form of electromagnetic radiation, microwaves, lasers and masers, and particles with mass. An earlier version of this article incorrectly included radio frequency, in particle-beam weapons, and sound. (Return to reading.)

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