Dynamite at the Speed of Light: How Directed Energy Can Transform the U.S. Navy

By Tim McGeehan and Douglas Wahl


On December 7, 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Stark issued the directive “Execute Against Japan Unrestricted Air and Submarine Warfare.” This was the opening phase of America’s strategy to engage Japan in a long war of attrition. Japan, on the other hand, had hoped for a short and limited war that would be concluded before America could fully mobilize. The American population, economy, and industrial base were asymmetric advantages that the Japanese could not hope to counter in the long run. Simply put, we could replace combat losses of people and platforms while they could not.

Now, our potential adversaries favor Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies that seek to keep our military at arm’s length and limit our power projection. Underlying this strategy is the familiar concept of attrition. To fight the “away game” our military will have to successfully penetrate multi-layered defenses extending well offshore and survive continuous engagement to carry the fight to our adversaries’ homeland. The recent proliferation of technology including long-range sensors, anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, and electronic warfare capabilities that aim to disrupt our command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) are making their A2/AD strategies increasingly viable.

While our Navy is accustomed to fighting the “away game,” attrition is a strategy we can ill afford today. Unlike World War II, with the 24-hour news cycle and the speed of information via the Internet, the United States can no longer politically accept a war with heavy losses of personnel or platforms. We no longer possess the production facilities to rapidly replace extensive combat losses of materiel that we could in World War II. Though we are the world’s largest Navy, our number of capital ships is limited and future investments to numerically grow the Fleet must be weighed against the need for development of advanced capabilities. If we are going to successfully engage adversaries relying on A2/AD strategies, our Navy needs bold and innovative solutions that can successfully counter their attrition focus.

The Salvo Competition

Sun Tzu reminds us that it is most important to attack the enemy’s strategy and we need to do just that. A key aspect our adversaries rely on to achieve the desired attrition is winning the “salvo competition.” As we approach their coasts, our adversaries believe they can overwhelm our ships based on the sheer number of long-range anti-ship and ballistic missiles they can deliver versus the more limited number we can defend against based on our current magazine depth. Our surface ships have advanced “hard kill” point defenses such as the Standard Missile (SM-2), Close-in-Weapon System (CIWS), Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), and SeaRAM. No matter how effective these systems are, they may run out of missiles and ordnance long before our adversary does, opening the door to unsustainable losses. To help increase survivability, the Navy is upgrading our softkill systems such as AN/SLQ-32 as part of […]