How Laser-firing Jets Will Work

First Attempts at Laser-firing Jets

In a nationally televised address on March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan proposed the creation of a space-based defense technology that would zap Russian nuclear warheads out of the sky with laser-blasting satellites. Dubbed "Star Wars" by the media, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) brought the first serious attention to the development of lethal lasers for the military, but the project lost funding when the Cold War thawed in 1991 [source: Encyclopaedia Brittanica].

Despite the fizzle of Star Wars, military technologists haven't lost faith in lasers as the killer app (literally) of the future. Over the past 30 years, the U.S. military and American weapons makers have invested billions in the development of lethal lasers that can be fired from military aircraft.

Boeing's advanced tactical laser (ATL), which debuted in 2008, represented one of the first major test runs of a military-grade laser in a flying warship. Hardly a lightweight, the 40,000-pound (18,144 kilograms) chemical laser was way too big to be mounted on a fighter jet, so the Air Force stuffed it in the belly of a 1950s-era C-130 transport plane [source: Adams].

The $200 million ATL could generate a laser beam 3 inches (10 centimeters) wide powered by reactions between chlorine gas and hydrogen peroxide [source: Adams]. The biggest challenge for Boeing's engineers was to design a target-tracking and aiming system that could automatically adjust to the constant vibrations and shifting coordinates of flight.

During test flights over New Mexico, the ATL successfully zapped a stationary ground target and burned a small hole in a moving pickup truck. Because the bulky ATL system relied on stores of onboard chemicals, it could be fired reliably only six times without reloading [source: Mick].

In 2010, jet-firing lasers got an upgrade with the unveiling of the airborne laser test bed (ALTB). The ALTB was also a chemical laser — the acronym is COIL (chemical oxygen iodine laser) — that was mounted onto the nose of a Boeing 747 jet. The ALTB was designed specifically as an air-to-air laser capable of shooting enemy missiles out of the sky.

During more than 200 test missions, the ALTB successfully engaged and destroyed two short-range ballistic missiles [source: MDA]. But that wasn't enough to keep the program funded. A fleet of 10 to 20 laser-fitted aircraft would have cost $1.5 billion each, far beyond what the military was willing to spend for relatively low-power weaponry [source: Schechter]. The ALTB was officially scrapped in 2012 and stripped for parts [source: MDA].

Don't worry, though. The dream of laser-firing jets is far from dead.