One conception of using lasers to power a spacecraft. (Image courtesy Breakthrough Initiatives at: https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/3)

Reaching for the stars: The case for cooperative governance of directed energy technologies

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One conception of using lasers to power a spacecraft. (Image courtesy Breakthrough Initiatives at: https://breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/3)

In 2019 the United States Army announced its intent to build a 250- to 300-kilowatt laser weapon, called the Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL, pronounced “if pick hell”), which would be 10 times more powerful than the most powerful existing laser weapon, the US Navy’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS). Though reportedly never used in action, LaWS is considered to be capable of blinding enemy sensors, shooting down drones, and disabling and damaging boats and helicopters (Mizokami 2019).

In military parlance, LaWS and other directed energy weapons – a category that includes lasers, microwaves, and particle beams – are considered to be disruptive technologies, meaning they are game changers that can radically alter the symmetry between competitors (Brimley, FitzGerald, and Sayler 2013). Directed energy technologies have also been stigmatized as weapons by their decades-long depiction in popular culture (for example, in the Star Wars film series).

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