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How Laser-firing Jets Will Work

        Science | Modern

Latest Developments in Laser-firing Jets

Despite gaps in funding for laser-firing jets, top brass in the U.S. Air Force still believe that high-altitude lasers have serious tactical benefits. While ground-based lasers have the advantage of being bigger and heavier, their beams can get warped while they pass through the atmosphere. Lasers mounted to high-altitude jets can take out enemy craft and missiles more accurately and at longer distances through thinner air [source: Freedberg].

The Office of Naval Research is paying particular attention to solid-state lasers, which are weapons that use electric power to fuel reactions in solid chemical compounds. Solid-state lasers are smaller, lighter and don't need to be refueled as often, making them excellent prospects for airborne deployment [source: Schechter].

A working prototype for a such a lightweight, solid-state laser is the Navy's Laser Weapon System (LaWS), currently mounted on the USS Ponce docked in the Persian Gulf. The 30-kilowatt laser packs enough heat and accuracy to burn through a drone's engine in mid-air or explode a grenade launcher strapped to the back of a moving speedboat. However the laser can't work against high-speed targets like jet fighters [source: CBS News].

After the $40 million cost to build the laser, firing the battery-charged weapon costs only $0.59 per shot in electrical costs. Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars or even $1 million to fire one current anti-missile interceptor like the Navy Standard Missile [source: Freedberg].

The goal of the military is to develop a 100- to 150-kilowatt solid-state laser for airborne deployment [source: Freedberg]. Drone-maker General Atomics Aeronautical Systems claims to have one in the works. Its Generation 3 high-energy laser (HEL), a solid-state laser "pumped" by a lithium-ion battery, will be able to produce beams as powerful as 300 kilowatts [source: General Atomics].

The Gen 3 is also relatively compact, measuring just 4.25 feet by 1.3 feet by 1 foot (1.3 meters by 0.4 meters by 0.3 meters). At that size, the Gen 3 will fit inside General Atomics' tactical laser weapons module (TLWM), an externally mounted laser pod that can be deployed on tanks, Navy warships and jet aircraft [source: General Atomics].

Although there are no videos of Gen 3 in action — it's classified — a General Atomics vice president told a U.S. News reporter that the company is "far beyond killing boats and unmanned aerial vehicles." Gulp.