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U.S. fighter jets to use Star Wars-style onboard laser weapons by 2014

The future of warfare has arrived: airplane-mounted laser weapons. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that the 150-kilowatt lasers would be 10 times smaller and lighter than existing lasers that fire comparably powerful beams– small and light enough to be mounted on fighter jets.

The main purpose of the laser weapons, part of DARPA’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, would be defensive: to knock out surface-to-air-missiles, rockets, and other weapons that threaten aircraft as the fly over hostile territory. But the weapons could also be used as a sort of offensive precision tool, disabling power stations or weapons deposits with fewer civilian casualties.

The new class of weapons will begin ground-based firing tests in 2014, practicing shooting down missiles and other potential threats to U.S. military airplanes. On January 17, the Pentagon revealed that General Atomics – Aeronautical Systems Incorporated would build a second laser in addition to the one already being developed, enabling both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy to test the lasers by next year.

The Navy has already successfully tested a larger version of the 150-kilowatt laser, using it to shoot down aerial drones and to destroy the motors of a small boat, a technique potentially useful for disabling potential pirates without engaging in violent combat (see video here). Prior laser weapons have been too heavy to mount on fighter jets, requiring 747s and similar craft, which proved to consume too much fuel to remain airborne for long periods of time. Past tests with the Airborne Laser Test Bed also revealed that weather conditions, dust particles, and other atmospheric interference can compromise a laser’s focus over long distances.

While a series of war games conducted during the August 2012 NeXTech Workshop at the U.S. Army War College suggested that laser weapons will not make a significant difference on the battlefield relative to robots and drones, many researchers see great potential for the next-generation weaponry. Smaller lasers could potentially be capable of generating electromagnetic pulses to disable guided missiles fired from enemy craft.

The Airborne Laser program traces its roots to 1996 as a U.S. Air Force project, contracted between several private defense firms. Boeing Defense, Space & Security supplied the aircraft, the management team and the systems integration processes, while Northrop Grumman built the chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL), and Lockheed Martin contributed the nose turret and the fire control system.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recommended the project be cancelled during an April 6, 2009 press conference, suggesting that the program return to a Research and Development effort. “The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems and the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable,” Gates said at the time.

Gates went on to say that the military would need a weapon “20 to 30 times more powerful than the chemical laser in the plane right now to be able to get any distance from the launch site to fire.” He went on to cite funding concerns, saying “If you were to operationalize this you would be looking at 10 to 20 747s, at a billion and a half dollars apiece, and $100 million a year to operate. And there’s nobody in uniform that I know who believes that this is a workable concept.”

Now that the lasers could fit aboard smaller jets as an added weapons system during normal Air Force operations, the calculus has changed significantly. It may not be long until we see evidence of lasers at work on the battlefield, in addition to our country’s growing arsenal of unmanned aerial drones and military robots.