August 5, 2006 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

The next generation of weapons

War, ever destructive, also spurs creativity. The high stakes involved spark technical as well as tactical innovation.

Technology advances change the face of war. The siege wars of the ancients, the trench warfare of the early 20th century are wholly outmoded due to advanced technology that allows today's battles to be fought at great distances.

That's an advantage for Hezbollah terrorists. They can fire their rockets into Israel, then quickly disperse, making it difficult if not impossible for Israel to effectively return fire. The accuracy of the attack is not an issue, as terrorists don't care what-or who-they hit.

How can the Israeli Defense Force defend against such attacks? Human creativity has an answer: Directed Energy Weapons.

DEWs represent a watershed change in military assets. They could play a vital role on battlefields in the Middle East and elsewhere in the next year or so -- but only if Congress takes the program off the shelf.

Some types of DEWs are limited only by the amount of energy they can tap. An energy weapon hooked up to a power plant, for example, could deliver shot, after powerful shot, for as long as the plant keeps generating power.

DEWs enjoy another major advantage over conventional ordinance: accuracy. Soldiers firing conventional weapons must take into account factors such as gravity, wind resistance, drag and time delay when targeting. Not so with lasers and other DEW. They aren't affected by gravity. Because they travel at or near the speed of light, a soldier can just "point and shoot."

Of course, that advantage is also a drawback. Directed energy weapons are direct line-of-sight weapons. To overcome this limitation, the military is trying to develop a series of reflective mirrors to bounce DEW shots to targets outside a direct line-of-sight. This program would benefit from battlefield testing.

The United States has had the technology to produce directed energy weapons for quite some time. In fact, these systems have already passed critical tests. At the White Sands Missile Range, for example, the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL) system successfully intercepted 46 Katyusha rockets-the very weapon Hezbollah fires daily into Israel. The system also worked against artillery and mortar projectiles in single, multiple and surprise engagements.

Unfortunately, DEWs need huge amounts of power, so they aren't very mobile. That's a key reason the U.S. pulled the plug on THEL, which had been a joint U.S.-Israeli project.

This is the moment where need and opportunity intersect. Israel needs weapons that can defend its civilians from terrorist shells and rockets, and DEWs can do that. At the same time, the United States needs to test new weapons systems under real-world conditions. Putting a system in the field now will help Israel and provide invaluable operational experience on how to use and further improve these systems.

For the U.S. to retain battlefield dominance, we must develop and deploy the next generation of weapons -- before our enemies can.

Congress should swiftly provide emergency supplemental funding to rush THEL into production, and the administration should direct the Army to accelerate the program as rapidly as possible. It should prove a great leap forward for defensive fighting -- and human creativity.

James Carafano is senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and co-author of "Winning the Long War: Lessons from the Cold War for Defeating Terrorism and Preserving Freedom."  Andrew Berman is working as an H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation Intern at Heritage this summer.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

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