Office for Disarmament Affairs and UN Institute for Disarmament Research host event on Directed Energy Weapons

December 20th, 2023

On 15 November, the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) hosted a side event on the margins of the 2023 Annual Meeting of the High Contracting Parties of the Convention on Conventional weapons in Geneva. The subject of the panel was directed energy weapons (DEWs) and the implications of their use under international law and was organized with the financial support of the European Union, under the aegis of the project in support of the Convention on Conventional Weapons (CCW).

Juliana Helou van der Berg, Political Affairs Officer (UNODA) and Dongyoun Chou, Senior Researcher on the Security and Technology Programme (UNIDIR), moderated the event. They both underlined that DEWs were emerging technologies that may fall under the scope of the CCW and, as such, deserved closer and renewed scrutiny in the context of the Convention.

The panel was composed of Jürgen Altmann, a physicist specializing in new military technologies and preventative arms control, Lauren Sanders, Senior Research Fellow with the Law and Future of War project at the TC Beirne School of Law, University of Queensland, and Stuart Casey-Maslen, Associate Fellow with the Global Fellowship Initiative of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

 Jürgen Altmann provided a comprehensive overview of the technology underlying directed energy weapons and their impact on international security. He explained that DEWs are weapons which project energy, with a view to inflicting damage or to destroy a target, but which do not have physical projectiles.  In his presentation, Altmann focused on two types of DEWs: laser weapons and microwaves. He described potential targets for laser weapons as well as possible defenses to them and explained the physical damage that could be caused by microwaves, detailing their initial deployment including, notably, in law enforcement contexts.  In conclusion, he provided an overview of the ongoing research and possible future developments in the field.

 Lauren Sanders focused on the relationship between DEWs and general principles of international humanitarian law.  She underlined that DEWs had been categorized as conventional weapons under international law and highlighted their anti-materiel role, i.e., DEWs’ utility [SO1] in disrupting, denying, or destroying the capabilities of other objects and weapons, including missiles, drones, and possibly even satellites in the far future. She further noted that this anti-materiel utility of DEWs was the most likely reason for their deployment and, indeed, several States had already tested their capabilities in countering drones and missiles. Sanders explored the various challenges arising from DEW use relating to proportionality, indiscriminate effects, and possible environmental impact. She emphasized that uncertainties relating to the reliability, accuracy and indirect effects of DEW use raised concerns regarding their potential to cause harm and damage. More information and clarity would, she said, be needed before deployment of these weapons to ascertain that their use would be lawful under existing international humanitarian law.

 Stuart Casey-Maslen discussed the legal challenges and regulatory considerations relating to the use of DEWs, focusing on the need to prevent unnecessary suffering and superfluous injury. He highlighted the lack of legal clarity around the use of DEWs and stressed the need for a clear legal framework to ensure their responsible and lawful use in alignment with international humanitarian law as the technology develops.

Overall, the event provided interesting insights into how DEWs can and should be regulated, and the challenges they give rise to that need to be considered and addressed. The Q&A session which followed provided an interactive platform for participants to engage with the panelists on related topics and challenges, including in relation to the applicability of DEWs in nuclear or atomic contexts, the risk of residual contamination of water sources and their contribution to climate change, as well as questions regarding the attribution and traceability of DEWs.