The Coming of Age of Directed Energy Weapons and the Red Sea Crisis

Red Sea Topic Week

By Dr. Bonnie Johnson

The recent crisis in the Red Sea has escalated from Houthi drone and missile attacks on commercial ships to a major Iranian-led, Houthi-supported barrage (300+ aerial threats) against Israel. U.S. Navy and coalition partner warships have intercepted numerous missiles and drones to protect commercial shipping and support Israel’s Iron Dome to successfully defeat Iran’s latest barrage attack. The Navy and coalition are using kinetic weapons – guns and missiles – to intercept the threats.

The Navy and coalition partners have been remarkably successful at thwarting the attacks so far, but at great cost that will be challenging to sustain. According to a recent CRS report, the current events in the Red Sea raise two serious problems: the Navy’s “depth of magazine” that is being taxed, and the highly asymmetric “cost exchange ratio” between the Navy’s expensive missiles and the inexpensive threats they are intercepting. A ship’s “depth of magazine” refers to its limited number of missiles and gun ammunition, which when depleted, requires the ship to be reloaded. This takes considerable time, including travel to a safe reloading area.

The “cost exchange ratio” refers to the large differential between the procurement costs for the Navy’s air defense missiles and the adversary’s relatively inexpensive offensive drones and missiles. The CRS report estimates that the Navy’s air defense missiles range from “several hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars per missile, depending on the type.” These costs stand in stark contrast to estimates of Houthi Iranian-made drones launched by the dozen that can “cost as little as a few thousand dollars.”

Wes Rumbaugh of CSIS adds the caveat that the cost exchange ratio is an insufficient measure of the real cost and operational considerations of conflicts. He points out the often-underappreciated complexities of defensive missile requirements that must provide precision guidance and exceptional maneuverability, the complex decisions that commanders must make to defend a region, and the value of the defended assets which include lives, expensive ships, and the broader economic impacts of attacks on commercial shipping. He also mentions how the escort mission in the Red Sea requires area defense capabilities that offer better range than point defense capabilities, where attacks often necessitate the use of expensive munitions to protect distant ships on short notice.

There is a high likelihood of wider proliferation and increased use of Red Sea crisis-inspired threats by more terrorist groups and nations over time. The recent attacks have wreaked havoc on regional stability, disrupted shipping, causing terror, escalating the conflict, and potentially normalizing attacks on shipping. The attacking capabilities are relatively easy and inexpensive to acquire and employ. Some fraction of the threats may fail to launch, maneuver, or impact their intended targets, but this can be compensated for by launching many of them simultaneously or over time. Adversaries may realize the asymmetric advantage of depleting warship arsenals and running up expensive price tabs, and purposely use many low-cost, crude threats to gradually reduce defenses through wave attacks. Peer competitor nations may also adopt this strategy and opt for swarms of inexpensive unmanned systems instead of more sophisticated missiles.

Noticeably absent are directed energy (DE) weapons, which multiple senior leaders have called for in response to the Red Sea attacks. The Navy’s SWO boss, Vice Adm. Brendan McLane, has expressed frustration over the lack of DE weapons, including lasers and high-power microwaves to counter the threats in the Red Sea. McLane wants to see industry speed up the development of DE weapons for integration onto warships. The commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Michael Kurilla, has also voiced the need for DE weapons, explaining that they are especially needed to counter swarm threats as part of a layered defense. Admiral Chris Grady, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also recently expressed interest in DE weapons to improve the cost exchange of air defense.

Operational DE weapons can help tackle the magazine depth and cost exchange challenges posed by threats. Laser weapons offer the potential for speed-of-light defense against threats with their focused beams – blinding sensors or burning through materials. HPM devices transmit a wider cone of microwave radiation that can damage a threat’s electronics. As with all capabilities, DE systems have their natural limitations and are therefore seen as weapons that could complement existing ship kinetic weapons rather than replace them. Shipboard DE weapons will provide closer range point defense – or self-defense of the ship or surface action group.

Gulf of Aden (Dec. 14, 2021) Amphibious transport dock ship USS Portland (LPD 27) conducts a high-energy laser weapon system demonstration on a static surface training target. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Donald Holbert)

To provide area defense, as is needed in the Red Sea crisis, many DE weapons will have to be widely distributed on surface vessels or be integrated onto aerial platforms for coordinated operations. According to James Black of RAND, costs as low as $13 per shot are estimated for some laser weapons—basically the cost of providing power during lasing. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren estimates similarly low costs per shot for HPMs. DE weapons have unlimited magazines in the sense they are not running out of ammunition. They can be fired repeatedly, limited by a different set of factors like power and cooling cycles, the time it takes to lase or irradiate targets and slew weapons to engage targets, and environmental effects that can lessen the effects of the DE weapons.

DE weapons are coming of age. Studies conducted by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) assess the pace of advancement and future warfare implications of technology, including the role of DE in future naval weapons. A team of NPS students developed a historical timeline of progress and milestones of the five different types of DE: lasers, particle beams, electromagnetic pulses, microwaves, and millimeter waves (shown in Figure 1). The color shading indicates the evolution from early-growth and development to current prototyping in four of the five types of DE and current stagnation in particle beam applications. Decades of discoveries and inventions have led to the recent era of rapid development, prototyping, and demonstration of these highly complex systems. Rapid advancements are being made in supporting technologies, such as the power and cooling systems to meet size and weight needs, adaptive optics for atmospheric effects and precision targeting, and integration onto platforms and with combat systems. The rise of unmanned threats, such as those in the Red Sea crisis, is helping push lasers and microwave devices over a final set of operationalization hurdles to deployment. 

Figure 1. Directed Energy Technology Evolution. Click to expand. (Graphic by Hurtado, Kenyon, Purakary, Scudder, and Yeary, 2023)

A family of DE systems is coming of age across the services. The Navy’s High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) system, designed to interdict drones, is being tested on a destroyer platform and is a “bit beyond” the experimentation phase and primed for growth according to Navy Secretary Carlos Tel Toro. The Navy’s Optical Dazzling Interdictor-Navy (ODIN) system has deployed on eight ships as a softkill system than can blind the sensors of drones. The Marine Corps is developing the LOCUST laser weapon system which will be integrated on tactical vehicles. The Army is developing 300 kW-class laser weapons as part of their Indirect Fire Protection Capability – High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) program. Arguably, the Air Force is tackling the most vexing application, integrating DE weapons on aircraft with their Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) and Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) programs. Aerial platforms for DE weapons are key to expanding beyond point defense tactics (self-defense at close ranges) to providing defense for an area, as is needed for protecting the Red Sea region.

HPM devices are maturing at a similar pace. Eric Teger describes the Directed Energy Front-Line Electromagnetic neutralization and Defeat (DEFEND) HPM prototype preparing for near-term field testing by the Navy, Air Force, and OSD. DEFEND is the size of a large CONEX maritime shipping container which could fit onto a ship or be towed by a vehicle. Future advancement will focus on decreasing its size, weight, and power.

Preparing adolescent DE systems for adulthood requires a push to get them across the “Valley of Death” – an often difficult transition from the development to the acquisition community. This is reflected in the possible price tag of $1 billion for the Navy’s first laser weapon program of record. Cost studies are underway to weigh the potential benefits of future low-cost-per-shot with the additional development costs still required to produce the weapons, and the recent unit production cost estimates of $100-200 million for an operational shipboard laser weapon depending on the power level. A challenge to analyzing the overall costs of laser weapons is the absence of previous, long-term programs of record to provide historical data.

The ODIN laser system, pictured below the bridge, appears installed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale during a July 2021 underway period. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Elisha Smith)

In terms of technological advances for crossing the “Valley of Death,” much of what is needed lies in continued testing and evaluation, operationalization, and providing training and education. Efforts are underway for prototyping, demonstrations, range testing, and evaluation of system capabilities and limitations in operational environments. The current DE family of systems are in different stages of maturity, ranging from low Technology Readiness Levels (TRL 3-5) for future systems like the 300kW laser or the airborne laser, to TRL 7-8 for systems like ODIN and HELIOS that are recently demonstrating capability at sea. As systems reach higher TRLs, there remains a significant effort required to transition the systems to ensure they are safe, reliable, usable, and fit to perform as intended in operations. Technological maturity must be complimented by extensive tactical development. More analysis is needed to fully develop DE concepts of employment and how they affect broader tactics and doctrine. These types of analysis can inform additional DE maturation focus areas as identified and described in Table 1.

Table 1 – DE Maturation Focus Areas for Crossing the Valley of Death

Focus areas for DE maturation Descriptions
SWAP-C (Size, Weight, Power and Cost) Further reduce the size and weight of DE systems; reduce the amount of power and cooling needed.
Platform integration Increase and improve the platform integration options for DE systems. Design and tailor host platforms specifically for DE weapon systems; design power, cooling, optics, targeting, etc. to best support DE systems and their associated SWAP-C needs.
Combat system integration Integrate the command-and-control functions of DE systems with the existing host platform combat systems.
Automated decision aids Provide artificial intelligence-enabled automated decision tools to support the complex process of operating DE systems
Coordination with kinetic weapons Fully understand how DE weapons can complement kinetic weapons; develop layered defense engagement strategies for a large variety of likely threat scenarios.
Point defense and area defense Continue to develop DE weapons for point defense (closer-range self-defense), but also develop concepts of operation for the coordinated use of multiple distributed DE weapons and DE weapons on aerial platforms to provide defensive capabilities for an area.
Engagement doctrine Develop effective engagement shot doctrine to support coordinated and layered defense use of DE systems in coordination with kinetic weapons.
Safety and deconfliction Provide DE system deconfliction to ensure the use of DE systems does not inadvertently fire at friendly, civilian, and unintended forces, systems, and platforms. Ensure that laser systems do not blind humans, such as pilots of manned platforms.
DE system sustainment Plan and prepare to operate and sustain DE systems including maintenance, repair, and logistics.
Training and education Provide training for warfighters and system operators; provide education to increase and inform the DE community of developers, users, evaluators, engineers, managers, maintainers, and acquisition community.


The recent Red Sea crisis is forcing the Navy to reckon with the rate at which it adopts DE weapons. The crisis has shown that the asymmetric threat is real. The Navy is facing serious challenges with magazine depth and cost exchange ratios as the fleet depletes expensive munitions to counter vastly cheaper threats. The use of cheap drones and missiles is likely to proliferate over time, increasing the potential for the Navy to face numerous low-cost wave attacks alongside more sophisticated threats.

DE weapons offer a potential solution to both the depth of magazine and cost exchange ratio challenges, but only after the technologies cross the “Valley of Death.” A major final growth spurt is required to push the adolescent DE systems into adulthood. The systems must undergo enough operational evaluation to ensure their fitness as safe, reliable, and maintainable capabilities that perform as intended. The DE community and tactical centers of excellence must conduct comprehensive concept of operations and employment analyses to understand how these systems will be effectively used in coordination with kinetic weapon systems. DE systems must be fully integrated with platforms to meet SWAP-C requirements and be operated as part of host combat systems. All of this comes with a sizeable development price tag. The return on investment will be realized as laser weapons and microwave devices come of age and defeat threats with their unlimited magazines and low costs per shot.

Bonnie Johnson is a professor of Systems Engineering at the Naval Postgraduate School. She leads interdisciplinary systems research to explore advanced technologies as engineered solutions for warfighters. She studies the implications of emerging technology on future warfare, specializing in directed energy systems and artificial intelligence.


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Featured Image: November 2014 – The U.S. Navy Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15) conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf.

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