From The Editor | May 15, 2023

Directed Energy's Walk Through The Valley Of Death

John Oncea

By John Oncea, Editor


Directed energy weapons are at a crossroads of sorts. Will the much-desired technology survive the valley of death?

We Were Soldiers, a 2002 film based on the book We Were Soldiers Once … and Young, dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drang which took place on November 14, 1965. The soundtrack for the movie features Train, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Five For Fighting, and a beautiful song – For You – written and performed by Johnny Cash and Dave Matthews.

Cash and Matthews quote Psalms 23:4 in the song: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The phrase “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” is often thought of as “a symbolic description of the world, meaning darkness and death are (symbolic) valleys on earth one must walk through, that is, part of the human experience,” according to Your Dictionary.

Just how did this phrase, reworked as “the valley of death,” come to be used to refer to a stage in the development of new military technology? According to the United States Army Acquisition Support Center (USAASC), “The valley of death or the chasm sounds like a place where vultures wheel in the hot desert air over the carcasses of the technologies that couldn’t make it across. It’s an apt metaphor, but the valley of death is not a place. It’s a condition.”

In military parlance, the metaphor applies to all sorts of products in numerous industrial and public settings. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) – a major developer and user of new technologies – suffers from the valley of death, notes USAASC. It also suffers in acquisition where the valley of death is often an unintended byproduct of an aging system incapable of keeping up with the speed of modern innovation.

“What it means, generally, when a program is lost in the valley of death is that the program was abandoned for at least one of four primary reasons: financial, technical, doctrinal, or organizational culture,” concludes USAASC.

Further refining the meaning, Rebellion Research adds the valley of death is when new “technology sits at a point too advanced for current operational needs, however, not advanced enough to be fully effective in the field. This stage often becomes characterized by a lack of funding and support, as well as a lack of interest from potential users.” It is during this stage that developing technologies are viewed as risky investments.

“Both the military and private investors develop cold feet on promising new tech,” writes Rebellion Research. “Lockheed will worry about the government following through as they won’t have a clear path to commercial viability while investing a ton in R&D. As a result, many promising military technologies never make it past the valley of death and thus never deploy in the field.”

DE Is Having Its Valley Of Death Moment

Earlier this year, the DOD established the Office of Strategic Capital (OSC) which intends to bridge the valley of death that has long plagued the Pentagon's ability to adopt new technology and keep pace with innovation, GovCIO reported. “There are several valleys of death if you are a young company trying to be successful,” Defense Innovation Board Director Mike Brown said during the IST Addressing the Valley of Death panel last year. “But in working with the DoD, the specific one that we have created for companies is, again, successfully demonstrating the capability, or we would say prototyping, but then not having the money in the budget to scale that. That's the DOD’s unique valley of death that we need to solve.”

Despite these efforts, the valley of death still plagues the military. Here, we look at this principle in action through the use of directed energy (DE) weapons and military lasers. Let’s start with this FCW article detailing the Government Accountability Office (GAO) calling for the armed services to detail how they plan to shift DE weapons from prototypes to programs of record.

FCW points out defense officials continue to be interested in DEs when exploring looking for capabilities like counter-drone and missile defense systems but the Air Force and Navy have yet to implement plans needed to transition the technology through the valley of death. The Army, for its part, has developed a detailed transition plan describing schedules and stakeholder roles to support moving these weapons into development, according to GAO.

“Despite the challenges for transitioning technologies, prior DOD and GAO work found that this gap can be bridged through cooperative efforts,” the GAO report said. “Technology development officials can make decisions that balance needs, resources, and technical feasibility in a way that is responsive to the end user. Acquisition programs and intended end users can provide early project endorsement, and communicate measurable performance metrics for the technology to achieve.”

The Navy’s strategic documents, notes FCW, call for DEs to counter anti-ship cruise missile threats and that “selected prototypes are expected to transition to an acquisition program in fiscal year 2024.” However, no transition agreement with its potential partners was been drafted.

Navy officials said they were “waiting on additional testing to ensure the capability could meet the Navy’s needs to defeat anti-ship cruise missile threats before generating agreements between the developer and the acquisition community.”

The GAO report also found the Air Force has consistently failed to identify transition partners and drafted transition agreements for prototypes it expects to bridge into acquisition programs when ready. “Air Force officials told the GAO that work on evaluating the technology maturity of current DE weapons systems remains ongoing, but the GAO noted that ‘the future of DE weapons in the Air Force is unclear,’” writes FCW. “Although the Air Force developed several technologies that have been leveraged across DOD, Air Force leadership has not incorporated DE efforts into funding planning over the next few years, and there are no current agreements to transition any DE efforts.”

In its guidance, the GAO recommends the Navy and the Air Force develop transition agreements between prototype developers and identify transition partners within the first year of a project. In addition, GAO advises the two military branches further document feedback during development and testing.

Surviving The Valley Of Death

“If ever there was a weapon system capability that needed moving across the valley of death, DE is it,” said Mark E. Solomons, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. To help see that it does, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) created the Modular Efficient Laser Technology (MELT) initiative which categorically excludes research aimed at improving current technologies, requesting “revolutionary advances in devices” instead. Of particular interest are proposals for the development of a compact, scalable, actively coherent beam-combined semiconductor-based (direct diode) HEL source technology with excellent beam quality.

The Defense Post writes DARPA says the current HEL systems are not scalable enough, using “multiple beam-combined high-power fiber amplifiers” as their source, requiring “large complex optical subsystems to condition and project the laser beam.”

“Using a ‘coherent beam combined tiled array’ as the source of the system will remove the need for complex subsystems, making the system more scalable without compromising beam quality,” write Defense Post. “The coherent beam array technique combines a group of multiple laser beams to create a correspondingly more powerful single beam.”