A little less than two weeks ago, Filipino fishermen in a small wooden fishing vessel were fishing within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone near the Spratly Islands. All of a sudden, a much larger ship appeared out of the night and rammed their small wooden vessel, causing it to sink. The fishermen stated that the Chinese vessel that rammed them simply turned, flashed their lights, and sped away, leaving the fishermen to fend for themselves in the open sea. Fortunately, a nearby Vietnamese fishing vessel rescued them. This may sound like fiction, but it’s actually the new normal for ships in the South China Sea.

We no longer live in a world that is either at peace or at war. Today’s world is characterized by an enduring competition known as the “competition continuum.”

Per the 2019 Joint Doctrine Note 1-19, the competition continuum describes an environment in which state and non-state actors continually compete for diplomatic, economic, and strategic advantage through a mixture of cooperation, competition below armed conflict, and armed conflict itself.

Competition below armed conflict, also known as the “gray zone,” describes forceful and aggressive activity, such as economic coercion or expansionism, specifically designed to remain below the threshold of conventional armed conflict. There is little margin for error in the gray zone. An unintended injury or casualty could dramatically escalate the situation, causing outcries and potentially prompting international accusations of human rights abuses, an armed conflict, or both. 

As the United States and our allies face increasing competition in the gray zone, one thing is black-and-white: The United States must rapidly develop and deploy new, innovative weapons systems to compete in gray zone conflict successfully and remain the world’s dominant military force.

Preventing a competitor from achieving their objective in the gray zone requires weapons with precision, stealth, and non-lethal capabilities. Could high-energy laser (HEL) and high-power microwave (HPM) systems, known as directed energy weapons, be the answer?

Inside the Gray Zone: South China Sea

To better understand directed energy’s potential, it is helpful to consider an example of gray zone competition: China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea carries trillions of dollars in global trade annually, and its waters are rich in natural resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and fish. For years, China has expanded its ability to control the South China Sea by occupying disputed islands, building artificial islands on existing reefs, and militarizing islands gained through that process.

China seeks to protect its island-building efforts and impede foreign intervention through a combination of civilian fishing vessels, coast guard ships, and maritime law enforcement troops. They have formally organized this fishing vessel fleet into a Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) and established a prefectural-level government with jurisdiction over the Paracels, the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, and Macclesfield Bank, with its base on Woody Island, Paracel Islands.

These fishing vessels are outfitted with reinforced bows that enable them to ram other ships, high-powered water hoses to use as non-lethal weapons, and sophisticated communications equipment. However, they are not armed with conventional weapons. Plus, it is very difficult to distinguish them from ordinary fishing vessels. As a result, the United States and their allies cannot respond with conventional military force without risk of significantly escalating the conflict and being seen as the aggressor on the world stage.

Directed Energy’s Gray Zone Capabilities

This underscores why the United States must deploy new capabilities, such as directed energy weapons. These weapons are very difficult to detect or intercept and can be precisely dialed from non-lethal to lethal. Plus, they operate at the speed of light, cost less per shot, and have larger magazines than traditional kinetic weapons. Field testing has proven that both HEL and HPM systems have several capabilities that could provide significant advantage in the gray zone.

HELs can damage a target very precisely, without significant collateral damage around the laser aimpoint. For example, a laser could easily cut antenna supports, or even weld a rotating antenna in place, which would interrupt or render useless communications or navigation aids. The laser beam director can also function as a very high-end telescope to provide exceptional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to the laser-host platform.

HELs can also “dazzle” the electro-optical sensors used in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and other systems to reduce their effectiveness. Higher power HEL radiation can damage these sensors, preventing them from performing their mission without causing bodily harm. The U.S. Navy has installed a laser dazzler on the U.S.S. Dewey (DDG-105), signaling that the Defense Department has already placed significant trust in dazzling capabilities. By next year, the Navy is expected to install the HEL and Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) system on a destroyer. The HELIOS system combines both a high-energy laser and a dazzling capability into a single system.

HPM systems, on the other hand, can apply radio frequency energy to disrupt a target’s electronics. In the gray zone, HPM systems could disrupt or damage the electronics of a variety of targets, including UAS, vehicle and vessel motors, radar, vessel communications and navigation equipment, and even entire buildings full of computers or industrial controls.

Bringing HPM systems as close to the target as possible is advantageous, which is why the U.S. Air Force’s CHAMP project was so intriguing. In the Counter-Electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP), the Air Force developed and tested a microwave weapon fitted into an air-launched cruise missile. With a flight range of 700 miles, these missiles would be capable of flying over CMM vessels at low altitude while emitting short pulses of energy. These pulses could disrupt or damage computer chips in these vessels, disabling electronic devices without causing any fatalities. Moving forward, the same HPM capabilities could be integrated into UAS, thus allowing longer engagement timelines and the possibility of revisiting the targets.

In addition to the counter-material applications described above, higher-frequency HPM systems also have effective and non-lethal counter-personnel applications. Consider active denial technology, for example, which emanates millimeter wave energy that is absorbed just below the skin surface. When directed at human targets, these weapons create a quick—but reversible—heating sensation. This makes these weapons well-suited for perimeter security and crowd control. If mounted in a helicopter, this capability could be used to effectively dissuade a small vessel from aggressive behavior.

What’s Next?

There is no question that directed energy is a potential game-changer in the gray zone. In recent years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has made significant advancements in reducing the size, weight, power, and cooling requirements for these weapons. Now is the time for DoD to integrate this technology into operational weapons systems for deployment in the gray zone.

But first, DoD must address two nuanced questions: Can our warfighters be sure that directed energy weapons will accomplish military missions safely and reliably? And would the use of directed energy be viewed as a proportional response to gray zone competition? 

To answer these questions, DoD should take four steps to improve our warfighters’ understanding of the effectiveness and proportionality of directed energy deployment.

First, DoD should integrate directed energy into high-level military exercises and wargames. These simulations are critical because they provide our warfighters with an opportunity to test weapons systems so they can better understand how they operate. These exercises also enable DoD to make investments in future capabilities that are informed by warfighter feedback.

Second, DoD must improve our understanding of directed energy lethality data. Simply put, a warfighter must have the necessary data and understanding of the impact an HEL or HPM capability will have against a given threat, and in a given operational scenario. Although we do have an understanding of what directed energy capabilities can do against certain targets, much more data is required to cover the breadth of targets that a warfighter could potentially encounter.

In recent years, the percentage of resources dedicated to developing lethality data has been a small fraction of the resources dedicated to directed energy hardware development. This presents a significant challenge for HEL capabilities, where lethality data will dictate the amount of dwell time on a particular aimpoint required to achieve the desired effect on a target at a particular laser power density. Fortunately, DoD has been working to increase funding to develop more lethality data, and it must ensure that these efforts receive full funding.

Third, DoD must develop the tactical decision aids (TDAs) that will allow warfighters to effectively use directed energy weapons in the gray zone. TDAs should utilize local environmental data, policy guidance, and multiple sensor inputs to provide a more complete situational awareness of the battle space. In addition, TDAs should incorporate lethality data. Since laser lethality is tied to a particular aimpoint on a target, the target must be quickly identified, and the target aspect angle must be determined so a suitable aimpoint can be selected.

In addition, we must understand the atmosphere’s impact on laser propagation and factor that into the determination of the required dwell time. This is a complex but doable process from a computational standpoint, but not one that the simple kneeboards often used by military pilots can easily handle. Exacerbating this problem are the multiple, high-speed current and future threats that will provide very short engagement timelines, to include the required weapon-target pairing process. In the future, artificial intelligence and machine learning will likely be very useful in increasing overall weapon effectiveness by speeding up those engagement timelines.

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