Laser weapons now a reality in US military

US navy warship USS Ponce demonstrating the use of the Office of Naval Research- sponsored Laser Weapon System in November 2014.
US navy warship USS Ponce demonstrating the use of the Office of Naval Research- sponsored Laser Weapon System in November 2014.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • A sci-fi staple for decades, laser weapons are finally becoming reality in the United States military, albeit with capabilities a little less dramatic than at the movies.

Lightsabers - the favoured weapon of the Jedi in Star Wars films - will remain in the fictional realm for now, but after decades of development, laser weapons are now here and are being deployed on military vehicles and planes.

Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon - all the big defence players - are developing prototypes for the Pentagon.

The navy has since 2014 been testing a 30-kilowatt laser on one of its warships, the USS Ponce.

Lockheed Martin has just announced a 60kW laser weapon that soon will be installed on an army truck for testing against mortars and small drones.

The weapon can take out a drone from a distance of about 500m by keeping its beam locked onto the target for a few seconds, Mr Jim Murdoch, an international business development director at Lockheed, told reporters this week.

But unlike in the movies, the laser beam is invisible to the naked eye.

By focusing the beam onto a target, the technology rapidly heats the inside of an incoming mortar round, causing it to explode in mid-air. The laser weapon can also pierce the outer skin of a drone, taking out key circuits and making it crash.

For the moment, the lasers being tested are all of about this same power.

Mr Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, sees that relatively small output increasing rapidly.

Within just a few years, he expects far more powerful prototypes of more than 150kw.

Such a laser could knock out a missile sideways on, where it is most vulnerable.

He said special operations forces want to test such a system by 2020 on an AC-130 gunship that specialises in ground support for troops.

And within six to eight years, US forces could begin using laser systems of more than 300kw, he added.

That degree of power could knock out an incoming missile head-on.

Eventually, reality will increasingly catch up with fiction.

The US military is also weighing the possibility of mounting lasers on drones flying at very high altitudes, making them capable of shooting down ballistic missiles shortly after launch.

Another bonus for the military from lasers is the promise of seemingly unending and cheap firepower.

Unlike conventional canons that need shells, laser canons are limited only by the amount of electricity that can be generated.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Laser weapons now a reality in US military'. Print Edition | Subscribe