The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on directed energy weapons for the Department of Defense.
According to the report, the DOD allocates a yearly budget of $1 billion towards developing directed energy weapons, which involve using concentrated electromagnetic energy. One notable achievement of this effort is the creation of high-energy lasers that have effectively demonstrated their ability to shoot down drones.
Despite efforts by the Department of Defense (DOD) to deploy emerging technologies, challenges in determining how to effectively utilize them in missions have hindered progress in moving these technologies from the laboratory to practical applications.
While the Army has created a comprehensive transition plan outlining schedules and stakeholder responsibilities to facilitate the development and deployment of these technologies, the Navy and Air Force have yet to follow suit. The GAO recommends they do so.
What the GAO Found
The DOD is actively engaged in developing directed energy weapons as a means of countering various types of threats, such as drones and missiles. Nevertheless, a recent report from the GAO has highlighted the challenges faced by the DOD in transitioning these prototypes to acquisition programs, despite the progress made in developing these capabilities.
The DOD and its military departments are actively engaged in developing directed energy weapons. Multiple laser weapon system demonstrators and prototypes have been created and successfully used in live-fire demonstrations to shoot down drones. Furthermore, higher-powered laser weapons are also being developed to counter larger threats. In addition to lasers, the DOD and military departments are developing various high power microwave capabilities, for purposes of engaging missile or drone swarm attacks against military bases.
However, DOD has long noted a gap—sometimes called “the valley of death”—between its development and its acquisition communities that impede technology transition. For example, the acquisition community may require a higher level of technology maturity than the development community is able to produce.
When a military department intends to transition a prototype to a new or existing acquisition program, it must identify a transition partner capable of further developing the new technology. To support this process, the Army has created a detailed plan outlining schedules, stakeholder roles, and early capabilities documents related to directed energy weapons. However, the Navy has not documented any transition agreements for the directed energy programs that were reviewed by the GAO, despite having fielded several directed energy weapon prototypes and identifying a potential transition partner. Meanwhile, the Air Force has not consistently prioritized establishing transition partners, which creates additional challenges for future transition planning. Without these crucial transition planning steps, both the Navy and Air Force run the risk of developing directed energy weapons that may not align with operational needs.
Why the GAO Performed a Directed Energy Study
The DOD invests approximately $1 billion per year into directed energy weapons, which utilize concentrated electromagnetic energy, including high energy lasers and high power microwaves. DOD has pursued these technologies for several decades, recognizing their potential to provide significant advantages. Directed energy weapons can deliver destructive or disruptive effects to targets at the speed of light and have potential benefits over kinetic weapons, such as missiles, including lower per-use cost.
As part of a Senate report, the GAO was tasked with reviewing DOD’s directed energy work, including its technologies, industrial base, related infrastructure, and transition efforts. The resulting report describes the current status of DOD and military department efforts related to directed energy weapons and assesses the challenges associated with transitioning from prototyping. To obtain insights into a variety of efforts, intended uses, environments, and military departments, GAO selected seven directed energy initiatives for review and analyzed DOD documentation while conducting interviews with DOD officials and industry representatives.
The GAO has issued four recommendations to the DOD, one of which is for the Navy and Air Force to establish transition agreements between prototype developers and their planned transition partners. While DOD has agreed with three of the recommendations, it has only partially concurred with one. GAO maintains that this recommendation should be fully implemented.
The GAO Directed Energy Weapons Highlights (1-page) and Full Report are included below for further reference.
Review the most recent Department of Defense Counter-UAS Strategy