In the News

Directed energy weapons research a new frontier for Air Force Medicine

By Peter Holstein | Air Force Medical Service | November 08, 2017

On the battlefield of tomorrow, bullets and bombs will not be the only threat to U.S. military personnel. The rise of directed energy weapons is creating a need to understand the medical effects of these weapons, and Air Force medical researchers are studying these questions.

Evolving threats in a dangerous world drive the direction of military health research. Directed energy weapons are one of the newest forms of weapons, just making their way from research and development onto the battlefield.

“Right now, we don’t see many directed energy weapons in current conflicts,” said Lt. Col. Richard Yoo, chief of the Counter Directed Energy Weapons Branch in the Air Force Medical Support Agency. “We’re in the early stages of learning about the long- and short-term medical affects these weapons have on people, both in terms of collateral damage and users.”

Directed energy weapons send highly focused energy, commonly electromagnetic energy, towards a target to disable or injure it. Well known types include lasers and radio frequency emitters. Some, like lasers, affect a target’s vision. Others use high-power microwaves to cause a feeling of intense heat without burning the target. The U.S. military, private industry and foreign governments are all developing these weapons, some for non-lethal anti-personnel uses and others to disable electronics.

This assortment of technology creates a wide range of potential impacts on people, which researchers are just starting to understand.

“The most likely injuries are to the eyes and skin,” said Yoo. “We continue to identify gaps in our knowledge and our treatment, and making plans to fill those gaps with new research. We want to be prepared to diagnose and treat injuries from directed energy weapons before we see them on the battlefield.”

Since directed energy weapons are an emerging force on the battlefield, cooperation between medical researchers and the line researchers developing new directed energy weapons is important. Collaboration between the Air Force Research Lab and medical researchers has contributed to research progress on both sides, and Yoo expects it will continue to bear fruit.

“The majority of directed energy weapons bio-effects research is from the AFRL,” said Yoo. “The Counter Directed Energy Weapons Branch connects the medical side of this research. We are leveraging this research to help fill in the gaps in our medical knowledge to develop possible medical countermeasures.”

Medical researchers bring different training and perspective than line researchers, who focus on the effectiveness of the weapon and the health and safety of the operator. Asking different research questions pays dividends in learning how to prevent and treat directed energy injuries.

“When line researchers 'zap a tissue' they record the physiological and behavioral effects to develop safety standards and predict injuries from collateral damage," said Yoo. "A medical researcher might look at the same test and learn more, like the medical implications to help identify the right treatment protocols. We don't totally understand how these weapons affect people now, but through this collaboration, we look forward to making important progress.”

Prevention and eye protection is another critical area of research. Just like with a pair of normal sunglasses, eye protection devices only block certain wavelengths of light. For pilots, it is critical to make sure that this eye protection blocks the correct type of wavelength, and that it does not impede their ability to read their electronic cockpit displays.

“Directed energy weapons are definitely part of the future of warfighting,” said Yoo. “We should not sit back and wait for the first injury to occur and react to it. When we do fight that future war we need to have the correct threat prevention and tools to protect our warfighters.”