Why do conspiracy theorists link directed energy weapons to disasters?

By: ishita goel j&
September 11 2023

Share Article: facebook logo twitter logo linkedin logo
Why do conspiracy theorists link directed energy weapons to disasters?

Almost every catastrophe is accompanied by false and misleading claims about the use of directed energy weapons (DEWs). (Illustration: Matthew Hunter/Logically Facts)

A narrative being pushed by those spreading mis/disinformation about the earthquake that ravaged Morocco on Friday, September 8, and killed at least 2,100 people, fosters the idea that a directed energy weapon or a DEW was behind the deadly tremors. The wildfires in Hawaii (spelled Hawai'i locally) that engulfed the island last month were also attributed to DEWs. Furthering this narrative, several social media users alleged that a laser beam or a flash of light was seen moments before the disasters hit. 

As alarming as the possibility of large-scale devastation using DEWs is, this is not the first time people have suggested their use behind disasters or other deadly events.

The earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria in February that killed tens of thousands was also linked to DEWs. Incidents of wildfires are especially popular among proponents of the DEW-cause-of-catastrophe narrative. Some have even linked acts of terrorism, such as the  9/11 attack, to DEWs. 

Social media users have linked several calamities to DEW. (Source: X/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

However, not only claims about DEWs being responsible for this or that disaster have been debunked on several occasions by fact-checking organizations, including  Logically Facts, but experts in the field also assert that the current DEW technology is not at a stage where it can trigger massive disasters or attacks without being detected.

But first, what exactly are DEWs? 

As defined by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), DEWs are a type of “electromagnetic or particle technology which uses energy, as opposed to a physical projectile, to strike a target.” To put it simply, think of a DEW as a powerful laser. 

DEW is, however, an umbrella term that covers three main systems: laser-based systems, radio frequency systems, and particle beam systems. All DEWs travel at the speed of light and have the ability to launch silent or invisible attacks. 

Then there are two main classes of DEW: High Energy Lasers (HELs) have a narrow beam size; and High Power Microwaves (HPMs), which use a larger beam size. Iain Boyd,  Director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, told Logically Facts that while HELs are being developed to protect bases against mortar shells, missiles, and drones, HPMs operate in a very different part of the spectrum, causing a range of effects but cannot start fires.

Several countries have been researching DEWs for several decades, but technical and operational challenges have prevented their widespread operational use.

Jürgen Altmann, a physicist and peace researcher, who has worked on capabilities and potential dangers (mainly to international security and peace) of DEWs for decades, told Logically Facts DEWs are mainly used in tests in military research and development. 

“Military research in the U.S. has worked on DEWs, in particular laser weapons, since the 1960s. Some prototypes were developed, in particular following the ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’ of former U.S. President (Ronald) Reagan. There were very big types using chemicals with power in the megawatt range, able to work for tens of seconds: the immobile Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser MIRACL now is used for testing at White Sands Missile Range; the Airborne Laser ABL was terminated after several years,” he said. 

Can DEWs be used to cause disasters?

While the origins of Hawaii wildfires are being investigated, initial reports suggest that dry vegetation combined with the drought conditions made for the perfect environment for the blaze. Even as climate scientists termed the catastrophe a “classic wildland-urban interface fire,” social media was inundated with claims linking the calamity to DEWs. 

Old, edited, unrelated visuals of electrical explosions, rocket launches, and meteor flashes, among others, were shared to show laser beams striking the ground as evidence of the purported use of DEWs in Hawaii. Some users even used an old photo of a Boeing aircraft to falsely claim it showed the carrier of the DEW weapon used for the alleged attack. 

Posts blaming DEWs for Hawaii wildfires gained significant traction online. (Source: X/Facebook/Screenshot/Modified by Logically Facts)

As journalists and fact-checkers await for enthusiastic social media users to give them substantial evidence linking DEWs and the Hawaii wildfire, experts have termed the idea of such a connection “nonsense.”

Speaking to Logically Facts on the possibility of DEWs causing the Hawaii wildfire, Dr. Scott Savitz, Senior Engineer at American research organization RAND, said, “This is a complete lie and not even one that makes sense…There are a few dictatorships and extremist groups who might want to disseminate this nonsense; it’s the 21st-century equivalent of blaming a natural disaster on a neighbor supposedly practicing witchcraft.”  

Others have also debunked the idea about the use of DEW to trigger wildfires in Hawaii or elsewhere. Boyd of the University of Colorado told us that such a thing was highly unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, a DEW used to start a fire would require a HEL that operates “at an infrared wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum, which means they cannot be seen with the naked eye. A lot of large and heavy machinery is required to generate such high power. “ Secondly, if such a weapon were to be deployed to shoot a laser beam from the skies, a very large airplane and a larger spacecraft would be required “that would not be able to fly around setting fires without being seen by many people.” 

Reiterating Boyd’s point, physicist Altmann said, “If focused and close enough (within hundreds of meters of range), DEWs can heat objects and also ignite flammable material in principle. But DEWs for this (wildfires) would be big and heavy.” He added, “DEWs on satellites that could ignite objects on Earth are possible in principle (needing megawatt power and large optics), but do not exist.” 

Rubbishing the idea of DEW causing fires, Graham V. Weinberg, a mathematician who focuses on defense concepts and has authored the book ‘Directed Energy System Performance Prediction’ said, “A lot of fires are deliberately lit. Some are caused by natural phenomena. Fires occurred long before DE (directed energy) was even developed.” 

Negating the possibility of DEW causing earthquakes anywhere, Weinberg said, “Earthquakes are caused by shifting of tectonic plates.’’ A nuclear explosion can cause it to happen, but a laser cannot, he added. In agreement with Weinberg, Dr. Savitz said, “No one could start an earthquake with a laser, no matter how hard they tried.”

Debunking another popular baseless narrative about DEWs causing the Twin Towers to fall during the 9/11 attack, Weinberg asserted, “A High Energy Laser(HEL) would have made a hole in the building but not caused it to fall. Was a High Energy Laser found set up nearby?"

Why do DEWs garner so much interest?

Even as experts reject the idea of DEWs being used for deadly events, the narrative remains widely popular among conspiracy theorists whose false claims sometimes reach millions of people.

On the question of why DEWs attract such attention, Weinberg said, “Because the average person has no idea about physics…The problem here is not understanding what the power requirements of the technology are and the effect it delivers. Again, maybe there are merits in science education.”

Attributing lethal events to advanced technology projects or mechanisms is a popular tool used by conspiracy theorists. For instance, Japan's 2007 and 2011 earthquakes were falsely claimed to be caused by the High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP)—an Alaska-based project of the U.S. Air Force to study ionosphere's properties and behaviors using radio transmitters.

The UNIDIR notes that in recent years, with an increase in funding capabilities, DEW technology – which faced a range of technical and operational challenges even as research started decades ago – is maturing.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office document states that at least 31 nations are developing DEWs, mostly for counter-drone missions. As countries race towards embracing DEWs with new enthusiasm, the UNIDIR recognizes the need for a closer examination and structured debate on DEWs. 

(Edited by Priyanka Ishwari)

Would you like to submit a claim to fact-check or contact our editorial team?

Global Fact-Checks Completed

We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before