In the past 55 years, the U.S. has spent more than $6 billion researching how to apply “focused energy technologies” — which include lasers, microwaves and electromagnetic radiation — for use in military weapons, an enterprise that has been growing in New Mexico.
Last month, programs to develop directed-energy weapons at Albuquerque-based defense company Raytheon Ktech, Sandia National Laboratories and an Air Force Research Laboratory facility at the Kirtland Air Force Base received a $10 million federal investment.
Raytheon Ktech is working with the Boeing Co. to create aeronautics missiles that are capable of deactivating a building’s energy supply — a crucial defense activity, some say, for blacking out a military target or deflecting a missile attack.
But in response to growing weapons capabilities in Russia and China, U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement Wednesday, it is imperative to move such weapons technologies out of the lab and into the field.
Through their proposed Directed Energy Weapon Systems Acquisition Act of 2016, the senators are seeking at least $300 million to rapidly advance the nation’s directed-energy weapons technologies. According to the bill, such research is currently “not funded at levels necessary” to create a full-scale development program.
“Directed energy will provide our armed forces with a qualitative advantage over our adversaries,” Heinrich said in the statement. It will “play a critical role in the future of weapons systems.”
Directed-energy weapons have the potential to home in on precise targets and can theoretically access a nearly infinite amount of ammunition. Once the technology is in place, it also becomes a cost-efficient missile interceptor, according to Heinrich’s office. Each missile fired in the United States’ current weapons program can cost between $50,000 and $100,000 per shot. A high-energy weapon would cost less than a dollar, a spokesman for the senator said Tuesday.
Pulses of energy from the weapon could reach a target, like an opponent’s electronic or defense system, and disable it without destroying the structure or causing casualties, the spokesman said.
Mark Neice, executive director of the Directed Energy Professional Society in Albuquerque, said in a statement of support for the senators’ proposal that “the best way to kick-start this process is to get the system into the hand of war fighters.”
He said there is always “reluctance to embrace the risk that inherently comes with new technology,” but that should not be a deterrent, he added.
Others, however, say the technology can have broader and less docile implications.
“These weapons have potential to do a lot of damage,” said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group. “They are not some kind of clean, humane weapon. They enable the user to use their other destructive weapons with impunity.”
Mello said some high-energy weapons could potentially disable a city’s energy grid or financial system.
He disagreed with the idea that the technologies should be developed in response to weapons advancements in China and Russia. “We don’t need to have an arms race, and we can’t afford it,” he said.
Heinrich, who started his career at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said at an event in Albuquerque in March that he was “proud” to lead the initiative for directed-energy technologies.
The new bill, he said in the statement Tuesday, would “drive change forward.” His spokesman said it could potentially make the weapons available in less than five years.
The proposal will be wrapped into the annual defense bill, which will go before Congress in May.
Heinrich said in the statement that programs to develop directed-energy weapons would create more high-paying jobs for the state. Raytheon Ktech, for instance, employs 170 people.
“Our state will undoubtedly continue to be a leader and make major contributions to this emerging field … [and] our national defense.”