Are Lasers the Future of War? A Future Tense Event Recap.

Werner Dahm and Spencer Ackerman

Photograph by Adam Sneed/New America Foundation.   

Funny thing about being hit with the military’s Active Denial System, which uses directed energy—aka lasers—to keep people from venturing where they ought not. According to Spencer Ackerman, a Wired blogger who experienced the Active Denial System firsthand in March 2012, “It hurts so much.”

Ackerman shared his pain on Tuesday night at a Future Tense happy hour on directed energy’s potential military applications and the questions the technology raises. He spoke with Werner Dahm, former chief scientist of the U.S. Air Force and currently the director of the Security and Defense Systems Initiative at Arizona State University, who has watched the development of directed energy firsthand. (Arizona State is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and the New America Foundation.) The problem with discussing directed energy, according to Dahm, is striking the balance “between excitement and education.” (It is truly difficult to resist sensationalism with this subject—we’re talking about ray guns here!) That’s why he seeks to “provide a balanced view of what we really can do, where we are in terms of developing these systems.”

While casual observers may think that all lasers are created equal, Dahm and Ackerman noted that there are many types, and the potential applications vary. In addition to the Active Denial System, they addressed the potential for directed energy weapons to block surface-to-air missiles, to destroy targets on the ground with “ultra-low collateral damage,” even to ruin an enemy’s electronics—kind of “the opposite of the neutron bomb,” as Dahm put it: It would leave people unharmed but cripple communications and infrastructure.

One important point that often goes unrecognized, says Dahm, is that technological development is not the only factor in deploying any new weapon. The “ConOps,” or concepts of operation, are just as important—the military needs to think about how they will use the technology. Sometimes, the development of the ConOps is slower than the creation of the technology—the ethics of a weapon and even its potential PR ramifications must be considered. The Active Denial System was briefly in Afghanistan, but it was never used. That’s because, Dahm explained, it would be too easy the Taliban to spread rumors about the weapon being used to sterilize Afghans.

What about using lasers to kill? That’s where most people’s minds go first when they hear about this technology. But Dahm said that it’s not in the immediate future. In recent wars, “there’s been a tremendous value placed on low collateral strikes,” and lasers certainly could technically allow for that one day. But he emphasized that they would also have to consider the psychological effects that that would have on witnesses. With current “kinetic strikes,” a person dies virtually instantly. That might be “ethically more acceptable” than a slower death—directed energy weapons could take several seconds to kill someone. Furthermore, bystanders might be “traumatized very significantly.” Upon being asked by an audience member what would actually happen physically, Dahm said that they aren’t quite sure, since for obvious reasons it hasn’t been tested on humans, but “it wouldn’t be pretty.” For these reasons and others, Dahm says, “The human targets are way down the list of really where this is interesting. I think from the Air Force perspective … airborne self-defense is by far the highest priority.”

When you hear Ackerman talk about how in 2011 the Navy used a 15-kilowatt laser to set a small ship on fire, it’s easy to see why this technology is a game-changer. But in the end, Dahm urged that we all put directed-energy weapons into perspective. “It’s easy to kind of think they’re the totally new paradigm, they’ll replace everything, and they’re not,” he said. “They’re one tool in the toolkit.”