Booz Allen’s David Stoudt on Bringing Directed Energy From the Lab to the Combat Zone and Beyond

Oct 4, 2018 4:35 PM ET

With its high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves, directed energy is like the phasers of Star Trek or heat-rays of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds come to life. Dr. David Stoudt has been guiding the evolution of the field and the development of directed energy technologies to support warfighters in combat since the 1990s. He recently became president of the Directed Energy Professional Society (DEPS), which held its annual Directed Energy Systems Symposium September 24-27 in Portsmouth, Virginia.  

We spoke with Dr. Stoudt about this field, how his team supports warfighters, and what’s excited and inspired him throughout his career.

How did you get interested in directed energy?

I’ve been living this dream for a long time. In the Navy, I was a diver and a submarine nuclear reactor operator, and then I went to college for electrical engineering at Old Dominion University (ODU). As an undergraduate research assistant, I found myself in the lab of Dr. Karl Schoenbach doing pulsed plasma physics and got hooked. After I wrote my doctoral dissertation at ODU on my ongoing research at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia (NSWCDD), I established world-class directed energy programs and facilities there and eventually became the Navy’s first Distinguished Engineer for Directed Energy, a Senior Professional position in the Executive Service. My work at NSWCDD allowed me to drive directed-energy research activities  in a way that supports the warfighter.

What have been some highlights throughout your career?

I led many technical programs and worked with highly capable researchers throughout my professional career in directed energy. At the start of the Iraq war, I was contacted by DARPA and asked if there was anything we could do about IEDs from a directed energy perspective. I used my background to come up with a counter-IED concept and formulated a very talented technical team. We built the NIRF system, which uses RF energy to neutralize IEDs. Within 18 months of getting funding, we had the system in theater. I took the system over there in 2005 with 15 civilian technicians and operators that operated the system during combat missions. The 90-day evaluation period became three years, we deployed a second NIRF system in 2012, and we also built stationery versions of the system that were specifically designed to counter the vehicle-borne IEDs. To my knowledge, NIRF was the first time ever that a directed energy system was deployed in combat.

Our team at NSWCDD also built the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS), which we deployed on the USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15). This was the first time the U.S. Navy deployed a high-energy laser onto a ship, and what was supposed to be a one-year deployment turned into three years.

For the last three years of my government career, I worked at the Pentagon and stood up the Naval Directed Energy Steering Group (NDESG). The NDESG was charted by the Undersecretary of the Navy (UNSECNAV) to develop the Department of the Navy’s (DON’s) Vision, Strategy, and Roadmap for directed energy weapons. The DON’s first-ever directed-energy Vision and Strategy were both formally approved by UNSECNAV Work in 2012.

What excites you about your current work with Booz Allen?

Since joining Booz Allen in 2016, I get called in on a number of the key programs under development at NSWCDD and at ONR. While at Booz Allen, I’ve focused on increasing the focus on understanding the lethality of directed-energy weapons and the need to develop tactical decision aids to assist warfighters who will use them in combat. To get these weapons in the hands of warfighters, we must understand their capability needs and win their trust. Booz Allen is very proactive in helping to manage expectations and not oversell the capabilities directed energy can provide.

We’ve been very proactive in assisting the government with developing directed energy capabilities—it’s our job to help make the government very successful. We’ve hosted the Directed Energy Summit for the last four years, and it has had a major influence on the directed-energy community. I’ve been extremely impressed with the impact this summit has had on the technical community, and leaders both in Congress and in the Department of Defense (DoD)—bringing leadership together to focus on the deployment of this critical new warfighting capability.

What do you see as the future of directed energy?

DEPS has been doing a lot outreach and education, both in the academic and technical communities, on the Hill, and with senior DoD officials. Now it’s time for  the directed-energy community to focus on the operational needs of the warfighter. We’re at a convergence of where the directed-energy capabilities have developed and the asymmetric threats that are manifesting themselves on the battlefield; threats such as small, slow UAS, which can provide Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) or drop ordnance on our troops. These are a real problem in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and they lend themselves well to directed energy solutions.

When you talk to warfighters from all the services, they say cruise missile threats are a significant and a tougher problem than many of the asymmetric threats. This problem will only get worse with the advent of hypersonic weapons. We must do more work as a community to get the capabilities to the point that they can be used effectively in combat; today for asymmetric threats, and in the future for higher-end threats such as cruise missiles.

Today, young engineers and scientists are typically drawn toward digital and cyber activities—but if you really like building things and doing work that’s unique and technically very challenging, the directed energy community is the place for you. We’re not putting lasers on sharks, not yet anyway, but we are building lasers that can shoot down aircraft, mortars, and missiles. We’re also building high-power microwave systems that can disrupt or damage the operation of electronics in weapons and infrastructures. We’re getting new and novel capabilities into the hands of the warfighter. This is truly a very exciting time to part of the directed-energy community.

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