The ethics of directed energy weapons

New and novel technologies are transforming military capabilities and will impact how militaries will fight into the future. As with any transformation, new vulnerabilities are being exposed and will be exploited by future adversaries. These new technologies include directed energy weapons which are within the reach of our future adversaries. Directed energy weapons can be broadly defined as systems that produce concentrated electromagnetic energy or atomic or subatomic particles. They can be utilised as a directed means to incapacitate, injure or kill people, or to incapacitate, degrade, damage or destroy objects.[i] The employment of directed energy weapons will challenge our current ethical and legal frameworks and our understanding of their employment.

This article will briefly examine the background of directed energy weapon systems including directed energy technologies and their associated risks. This will provide a foundation to analyse the ethical and legal implications of their use. Future specific threats and capabilities will not be analysed as the focus is on the ethical and legal implications of the employment of directed energy weapons.


Directed energy technologies are accessible to a wide range of potential adversaries and represents a means for potential adversaries to seek military advantage. The weapons trend facing modern militaries exploits available commercial technologies that fuse speed, reduced signatures, and sophisticated deception measures to mitigate technology overmatch. These new weapons are intended to compress the time available for effective reaction. For example, active defensive systems can negate reduced signatures and deception and will likely be capable of dealing with swarming tactics. The relative advantages of directed energy systems will need to be continuously re-evaluated as these new developments emerge. Directed energy offers to be a transformational event in combat operations, able to augment and improve operational capabilities. Yet despite this potential, years of investment have not resulted in any operational systems with high energy output. This lack of progress is due to unexpected technological challenges and a fundamental lack of understanding of the costs and benefits of the systems.

Current concepts, employment and applications

The utility of directed energy weapon systems for military applications depends on several key considerations. The system must demonstrate the capabilities of an operational weapon system, must not require a significant logistics support system or dedicated infrastructure, or highly skilled operators and maintenance crews. Over the short-term, these prescriptions imply the development of lower-power tactical applications, such as defence against swarming threats, man-portable air defence systems, sensor and electronics destruction/denial, and less-than-lethal anti-personnel applications, for which directed energy weapon systems have already demonstrated a potential capability.

Currently, they are four primary forms of directed energy weapon systems. Firstly, lasers capable of shooting down planes and missiles, or employing bright light to dazzle or disorient people. Electromagnetic waves of other wavelengths including millimetre or microwaves that can be directed against human or hardware targets. Weapons employing particle beams to disrupt or damage a target’s molecular or atomic structure. Finally, sonic and ultrasonic weapons. which use sound waves to affect a target rather than electromagnetic waves. Directed energy weapon systems create unique hazards that are different from conventional weapons. For example, power levels span a range from levels that are considered safe for human exposure, through levels that can induce pain but cause no permanent cell damage to levels that would be fatal to humans or that would destroy materiel. These power levels are inherently adjustable and can be employed for a lethal or non-lethal effect. These unique risks present new ethical and legal considerations for their employment.

Ethical and legal considerations

Directed energy weapon systems have the potential to circumvent existing legal restrictions and prohibitions on weapons. This includes the prohibition on blinding laser weapons creating comparable battlefield effects as prohibited systems but falling outside their technical definitions. Traditional interpretations of protective principles, including the prohibition on causing superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering to combatants, may be challenged by novel ways of inflicting physical and mental harm. Historically, systems that harm subjects through non-kinetic means have often been considered an issue of concern or to require special consideration. There appears to be little public data and considerable uncertainty about the environmental and health effects of directed energy weapons. Some directed energy weapons are promoted for use in various tactical situations and environments and for diverse purposes, which risks further blurring the boundary between law enforcement and war fighting – which traditionally have been subject to different normative legal and ethical regimes.

International forums including the United States National Defense University Directed Energy Battlefield: Obstacles to Success are attempting to understand the status of directed energy weapon research and employment. For example, a range of identified key challenges to the development and employment of directed energy weapons were identified including capability, credibility, and cultural gaps. Three principal barriers preventing the deployment of directed energy weapon systems have been identified. Firstly, technology and engineering issues, including proof of concept, technology feasibility, system complexity, and lack of system weaponisation (weight, size, reliability, maintainability, safety, operability) will impact the definition and therefore the regulation of directed energy weapons. Secondly, the reluctance of the military operational community to employ directed energy weapon systems (including non-lethal weapons) against personnel, will further impact the development of legal and policy support frameworks potentially restricting their use. Finally, overall directed energy weapon cost will be uncompetitive against conventional weapon systems. This is due to the lack of an industrial business to maintain industrial involvement which will impact future research and development of directed energy weapon options.

While Australian policy in conjunction with international treaties prohibit the deployment of weapons specifically designed to cause blindness, no policy, treaties, or laws prohibit the deployment of non-lethal directed energy weapons, even if eye damage could result as an unintended consequence. One such constraint is the use of a laser weapon to intentionally blind combatants. The States Parties to the 1980 Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons Which May Be Deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects had a fourth protocol adopted in 1995, where the intent is to prohibit laser weapons that are specifically used to blind combatants systematically and intentionally. While the Australia is not a signatory to this particular protocol, the Department of Defence has issued a policy that prohibits the use of lasers specifically designed to cause permanent blindness of unenhanced vision.

Similar policies are required for other directed energy weapons. At the same time, when such weapons are new to the battlespace, there will be a policy determination on their initial introduction to include an understanding by appropriate military leaders and policy makers of the intended uses. Such determination needs to be informed by a thorough and credible understanding of the risks and benefits of employing such weapons. Beyond the process of approving first use, the expectation is that the Laws of Armed Conflict, rules of engagement, and Commander’s intent will govern employment of directed energy weapons as is the case for kinetic weapons.

Directed energy weapons will challenge our current ethical and legal frameworks for the use of military force. As a Defence Force, we need to invest in understanding these challenges to mitigate the effects of these weapon systems in the future battlespace. The challenge for Defence is to understand how and where these technologies can be employed without compromising our ethical and legal frameworks.


[i] R.A. Poisel, Information Warfare and Electronic Warfare Systems (Artech House, 2013), p. 7.

2 thoughts on “The ethics of directed energy weapons

  1. Great article, from a credible source. The uneducated like me would have still seen this as science fiction. Good to see the conversation on the ethics behind a technology, before it becomes widely accessible. It seems like we didn’t do this early enough with commercially purchased drone technology.

    Liked by 1 person

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