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.
Author's Note: How Laser-firing Jets Will Work
As with jet packs and flying cars, I've always assumed that the future would include laser guns. I'm heartened/terrified to learn that the military continues to seriously pursue laser weaponry, and I'm unapologetically psyched to hear that they're adding "zap!" sounds when these death rays are fired. At least lasers are mostly seen as "defense" weaponry, shooting down incoming missiles and mortars to protect troops and innocent lives. That said, some in the military are also interested in these silent, invisible long-range laser weapons for their promise of "plausible deniability" [source: Hambling]. Who blew up the submarine? Not us!
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