What are India's top-secret Directed Energy Weapons?

Experts call it a military technology of game-changing potential


It could have been the veritable storm in a teacup. Or, perhaps, it was an acknowledgement of the induction of disruptive military technology of game-changing proportions. On March 21, speaking at a public event in Delhi, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhuri said India had tested and deployed Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) and hypersonic weapons. For the assembled defence journalists and members of the strategic community, it came as a big surprise. But soon came the clarification from IAF sources: the chief was just pointing out that such weapons had been “tested and employed” by many countries, and not particularly by India.

DEWs are now very much part of India’s elaborate security architecture, although there has been no official declaration to this effect.

THE WEEK has, however, learnt that DEWs are now very much part of India’s elaborate security architecture, although there has been no official declaration to this effect. DEWs refer to weapon systems that direct devastating lethal force generated by concentrated laser, microwaves or particle beams onto a target at a great speed. DEWs have many key advantages over conventional weapons. There is unmatched accuracy, low cost per shot, logistical benefits and low detectability, besides the lightning speed at which the death rays hit the target. But most significantly, DEWs seem to be the sole answer to the virtually ‘unstoppable’ hypersonic missiles.

DEWs are believed to have been first used by the Greeks in 212 BCE when scientist-philosopher Archimedes defended the city of Syracuse by re-directing sunlight with the help of curved polished mirrors. The sunbeams blinded the invading Romans and set the sails of their galleys afire.

In the development of these systems in India, it was the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and its adjunct, the Hyderabad-based Centre for High Energy Systems and Sciences (CHESS), that have played a key role. Several other entities, from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and the Army Design Bureau (ADB) to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) are involved in different DEWs programmes. “CHESS has developed a laser-based anti-drone system which has been demonstrated successfully to potential users. An integrated anti-drone system including radar, jammer and laser-based hard kill capability has been developed and deployed,” said a book brought out by the Defence Scientific Information and Documentation Centre. The Bengaluru-based Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL) has been entrusted with the manufacturing and supply of these weapons.

Multiple sources, requesting anonymity, told THE WEEK that DEWs had been part of the Indian arsenal for years now. These are the products of classified programmes like KALI (Kilo Ampere Linear Injector) and DURGA (Directionally Unrestricted Ray-Gun Array). Sources said several of these platforms had already been inducted, and the induction of a ‘major platform’ was likely in 2024. This system will be capable of annihilating incoming missiles and projectiles in the terminal phase of their flight, even at ranges of about 25km. Details of the operational range and other parameters of these platforms are closely guarded secrets.

19-The-Tactical-High-Power-Microwave-Operational-Responder Ready to fire: The Tactical High-Power Microwave Operational Responder (THOR), deployed by the US | Courtesy US Air Force

An off-shoot of the DEWs programme is an anti-drone system which has been deployed for the past two years at the Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi. Said Ravi Kumar Gupta, a military scientist who worked with the DRDO for 36 years, “The DRDO’s anti-drone system is a state-of-the-art product with both hard kill and soft kill options. It is being produced by BEL.” The intense and concentrated beams from DEWs would disrupt or jumble up communications and other command, controlling, positioning, navigation and timing systems in the target in what is known as a soft kill or even destroy the target in a hard kill.

Gupta said that during the early phases of developing laser-based DEWs, the focus was on gas dynamic lasers as the source, which soon shifted to chemical lasers because of higher efficiency. “It, however, involved storage and handling of extremely toxic and hazardous gases. Advances in solid state lasers and fibre optic lasers [have helped]. Further, their compactness and safety has resulted in most of the DEW systems being based on solid state laser sources,” said Gupta. He refused to comment more on the KALI and DURGA programmes.

Captain Rajprasad, the inventor of ‘Shatrunash’, a handheld electromagnetic pulse gun that emits bursts of microwaves to disrupt IEDs and electronics, said, “Most DEWs are laser-based. It is difficult to work with microwaves because it is very dangerous even for those working on it.”

India’s efforts to develop DEWs began a couple of decades ago. Amitav Mallik, a military scientist who was the founder director of the Delhi-based Laser Science and Technology Centre (LASTEC), said, “The US experiment of destroying one of its own ageing satellites with ground-based laser weapons in 1996 alerted many nations with space assets about such security threats. That is when India started its own DEWs programme, and LASTEC achieved full-scale technology demonstration in an outdoor simulated environment at the Hindon air base near Delhi in 2001. Now the story is old enough to be de-classified.”

Mallik, who later worked with the National Security Advisory Board, oversaw the top secret demonstration in 2001 which was attended by the country’s top leadership including the chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. A 100 kilowatt laser beam was shot from an apparatus mounted on three trucks at an ‘eight inch by eight inch’ steel-plated target placed on a moving jeep, simulating the angular satellite movement. “The target disintegrated in a flash,” said Mallik. The top-secret project was named ‘Tri-Netra’.

From 2018 onwards, LASTEC’s work was gradually divided between CHESS and Terminal Ballistics Research Laboratory (TBRL) at Chandigarh. The Chandigarh lab’s work was later delegated to the Dehradun-based Instruments Research and Development Establishment (IRDE). The reason for the shifting was that the area around LASTEC in Delhi had become thickly populated and the space to test potentially dangerous technology became limited.


“The development of DEW systems beyond a point required larger space. Hence CHESS was born,” said Gupta. “Like every large military system, DRDO’s anti-drone system, too, involved multidisciplinary efforts and hence multiple laboratories.”

Yury Borisov, who was Russia’s deputy prime minister in charge of military development, said ‘Peresvet’ (in pic) could “dazzle and blind” satellites placed up to 1,500km above earth.

Worldwide, the two main options for DEWs have centred on high power lasers (HPL) and high power microwaves (HPM). HPLs, because of a narrower beam, would cover a smaller target area as opposed to HPM weapons which, because of their wider coverage area, could be more effective against a salvo of missiles or drone swarms.

A laser ray of approximately 100 kilowatt can take down unmanned aerial systems and artillery. A laser beam of around 300 kilowatt could decapitate small craft, vehicles and cruise missiles, while lasers of one megawatt could devastate ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons.

DEWs gained further traction in November 2020 during the Sino-Indian border standoff when Jin Canrong, a political strategist at Beijing’s Renmin University, made a claim on Chinese television that the PLA used microwave weapons in August 2020 to force Indian soldiers off the contested peaks in eastern Ladakh. “No shots could be fired, but you had to take the peaks back. It was very tough. Later on, the PLA came out with a wonderful idea. They discussed it with other troops. They used microwave weapons,” said Jin. “They emitted microwaves from the bottom of the mountain, turning the mountain top into a microwave oven. After 15 minutes, the Indian soldiers started throwing up…. Thus we took the hills back.”

While Jin’s claims were ridiculed by the Indian security establishment, including the then Army chief General Manoj Naravane, as being part of a propaganda war, it stirred a sense of unease. Just a year after Jin made his claims, the Indian defence ministry announced that the Navy was procuring the first-ever indigenously developed anti-drone system that “can instantly detect, jam micro drones and use a laser-based kill mechanism to terminate targets”.

The development and manufacturing of DEWs was a collaborative effort at the highest level. The ‘comprehensive’ naval anti-drone system was birthed in the laboratories of the DRDO, but was manufactured by the state-owned BEL. DRDO Labs―Electronics & Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) and Defence Electronics Research Laboratory (DLRL)―along with CHESS and IRDE were instrumental in developing the product. The drones were manufactured at BEL centres in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune and Machilipatnam. The Army and the Air Force are soon to follow the Navy’s footsteps in acquiring these systems.

On March 11, 2022, the defence ministry announced the decision to identify 18 major platforms for industry-led design and development. It included DEWs of 300 kilowatt and more, and High Powered Electromagnetic Devices and High Powered Laser Devices.

While India is racing ahead with research and development of DEWs, it faces stiff competition from other major powers. A US defence department report said China had multiple ground-based laser weapons of varying power levels to disrupt, degrade or damage satellites. “By the mid-to-late-2020s, China may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites,” said the report. It has already developed a system (LW-30) that can take out unmanned aircraft systems and precision-guided weapons. This was first unveiled at the International Aerospace Exhibition in Moscow in 2019.

The Chinese state-controlled media claims that the LW-30 can lock on a target 25km away in just six seconds before launching a laser beam to destroy it, offering assured defence against low-altitude air defence weapons and even cruise missiles.

Russia, which is among India’s trusted defence partners, has been working on DEWs for more than half a century. While the earlier efforts largely focused on HPL weapons, the Russians are now showing interest in HPM weapons as well. In 2018, President Vladimir Putin unveiled a laser weapon for air defence and anti-satellite warfare called the ‘Peresvet’, after a legendary Russian warrior-monk.

Yury Borisov, who was deputy prime minister in charge of military development, said last year that Russia deployed a few “wonder weapons” in Ukraine, including ‘Peresvet’ and another laser weapon called ‘Zadira’. Borisov said that while ‘Peresvet’ could “dazzle and blind” satellites placed up to 1,500km above earth, ‘Zadira’ would “burn and melt” targets. “If ‘Peresvet’ blinds, then the new generation of laser weapons lead to the physical destruction of the target. It involves thermal destruction. This is not some sort of exotic idea, it is the reality,” said Borisov.

The US, which leads the global research on DEWs, was the first to develop the technology when president Ronald Reagan launched his strategic defence initiative (nicknamed the Star Wars programme). With its first-mover advantage, the US has made substantial headway. The present roadmap of the US defence department aims at increasing the power levels of DEWs from about 150 kilowatt to 300 kilowatt by the end of fiscal year 2023 (October 2022 to September 2023), to 500 kilowatt by FY 2025 and up to megawatt levels by FY 2026. The department has sought $669 million for unclassified DEWS research, development, test and evaluation, and $345 million for unclassified DEWs procurement.

Besides the already deployed Tactical High-Power Microwave Operational Responder (THOR), some of the projects in various stages of development include Phaser High-Powered Microwave, Counter-Electronic High-Power Microwave Extended-Range Air Base Defense (CHIMERA), High-Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS) and Self-Protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (ShiELD).

What nuclear weapons and missiles were to the Cold War, and satellites and communication technology are to the present times, DEWs will be for military capability of the immediate future and thereafter. No wonder every major world power is in pursuit of such weapons, with India, too, having made considerable progress.