For the second time in recent years, the United States has witnessed another
wake-up call for the importance of fielding directed-energy weapons capable of
shooting-down mortar and artillery fire, as well as intercepting short-range
rockets and missiles.The Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and the
Congress need to place more emphasis on fielding working prototypes of these
systems as quickly as possible.
People as Targets
Terrorism continues to be the scourge of the 21st century, but the age of
conventional wars is far from over. In recent years we have had plenty examples
where both means of warfare have employed conventional weapons to target
civilians. Specifically, indirect fire weapons from mortars to short-range
missiles have been directly targeted against innocents or employed against
military targets in urban areas, putting civilian populations at risk.
Terrorists in North Africa attempted to shoot down a commercial airliner with a
short-range surface-to-air missile. In Iraq, insurgent groups used mortars to fire
on administrative buildings, as well as military facilities in Baghdad and
other urban areas.
Even more troubling, however, is the use of these conventional weapons in
combat zones aimed at the heart of civilian populations. In the 2006 battles
between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hezbollah's Katyusha rocket attacks
killed and wounded dozens of Israelis, destroyed property, and sent thousands
to bomb shelters. The rain of rockets threatened to spark a larger regional
Another Rage of Rockets
The Russian incursion into Georgia last week saw the use of rockets in urban
areas by both sides. According to reports in The New York Times,
Georgia fired BM-21 rockets, a system similar to the Katyusha, at separatist
military headquarters. Although the rockets appear to have been aimed at
legitimate targets, the risk of damage to the surrounding civilian community
from these inaccurate weapons may have been high. According to other press and
eyewitness reports, during the massive Russian military offensive, ground
troops fired dozens of SS-21s, a short-range ballistic missile that can carry a
high-explosive warhead. It is not clear whether these weapons were fired at
legitimate military targets. In addition, the large SS 21 high-explosive
warhead can carry either fragmentation bombs or mines making the risk of
civilian causalities in urban areas very high.
The Promise of Directed Energy
Despite repeated warning signs that both unconventional and conventional
combatants have no problem using the weapons of war to target both military and
civilian populations, the United States has shown little sense of urgency in
developing effective countermeasures for either equipping military forces or
safeguarding civilian populations.
Directed energy weapons, such as the Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL),
demonstrate tremendous potential against all kinds of mortar, artillery,
rocket, aircraft, and missile threats. Directed energy can be used against
short-range threats like the Katyusha rockets being fired at Israel and against
ballistic missiles like the SS-21s fired at Georgia. Such systems could also be
used for homeland security, such as protecting critical infrastructure,
national security events (such as the presidential nominating conventions) and
commercial air traffic from terrorist attack.
Concluding that the THEL was not sufficiently mobile and robust for
battlefield use, the U.S. Army decided to forgo its full development.
Meanwhile, though the Department of Homeland Security has experimented with
some systems to defend commercial flights against surface-to-air missiles, it
too has not deployed any operational systems.
The Clock Is Ticking
Rather than deploy the THEL, the national security community has turned to a
new generation of lasers for developing suitable directed-energy protective
systems. These lasers employ a solid-state technology, incorporating multiple
industrial thin disk lasers into a single high-powered energy devise. The
military is currently developing prototypes for a mobile version of this
Congress should insist and the administration should press to field
operational prototypes of these systems as quickly as possible for both defense
and homeland security applications. Both land-based and air-based platforms
(mounted on manned and unmanned aircraft) should be fielded as soon as
possible. Putting a system in the field now would provide some limited
operational capability and invaluable operational experience on how to use