Pew, pew, pew! That's the sound of warfare in the future.
Laser weapons have fueled our science-fiction fantasies ever since Luke blew up the Death Star. Despite the fact that you can't actually hear lasers, exploding death planets or any other noise in the vacuum of space, there's something undeniably awesome about zapping a target into oblivion with a lethal blast of hyper-concentrated energy.
Conventional weapons are powerful but sloppy. Dropping a bomb from a plane is great for leveling an entire munitions factory or taking out a strategic bridge. But 21st century warfare — marked by rogue terrorist cells and unmanned drone attacks — requires much more precision from military weaponry. And nothing is more laser-precise than, well, lasers!
Every major American weapons manufacturer — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grunman — is under contract with the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force to develop more powerful and compact laser systems that can be deployed by warships, tanks and even airplanes.
Dismissed for decades as a science-fiction pipe dream, military-grade lasers are back in the headlines and badder than ever. In late 2014, General Atomics posted a slick video of an explosive demonstration of its laser weapons system (LaWS), a truck-size laser that looks like a high-end telescope. Mounted on the USS Ponce, a Navy warship, the swiveling weapon silently zapped targets strapped to the back of moving speedboats then took out an unmanned drone for a grand finale.
In March 2015, Lockheed Martin made headlines when it used a 30-kilowatt laser called the advanced test high energy asset (ATHENA) to bore a red-hot hole in the manifold of a pickup truck from a mile (1.6 kilometers) away [source: Moseman].
At a Department of Defense "Lab Day" in May 2015, the chief of the Air Force Research Laboratory publicly declared the U.S. military's goal of strapping a 100-kilowatt laser to a fighter jet by 2022 [source: Freedberg]. That's the closest thing to a real X-Wing fighter this side of Tatooine.
There have been incredible breakthroughs in laser technology, but will we meet the 2022 goal of mounting these bad boys on planes?