Why our military is so hot on laser weapons

A Marine from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit uses the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System during a simulated force-on-force military operations on urban terrain exercise during Exercise Key Resolve/Foal Eagle 2009. The annual joint exercise involves forces from the U.S. and the Republic of Korea. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Bobbie Attaway.

Since lasers are concentrated beams of light that generate heat, one would assume that they would be easy to weaponize. Until recently, however, progress has been more difficult than expected.

Lockheed Martin, the biggest U.S. defense contractor, announced this week that it was exploring ways to install a laser on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

According to The Week, the Navy already has a laser weapon on the USS Ponce. And the Army is currently trying to figure out how to use lasers to protect troops from artillery shells, drones, and missiles.

Right now, engineers are just scratching the surface. Once they can figure out how to make these laser weapons smaller and more compact, they will be able to mount them on almost anything.

U.S. soldiers train with infrared lasers in 2009.  (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael J. MacLeod)
U.S. soldiers train with infrared lasers in 2009. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael J. MacLeod)

The damage that a laser inflicts is from the heat produced by focused light. The heat is powerful enough to burn a hole into an airplane or to set a pickup truck’s gas tank on fire. If a weaponized laser is pointed at an artillery shell in flight, it can heat up the explosives in the shell and detonate it.

While engineers have known how lasers work for decades, they have been held back by various problems. The biggest issue is power generation and storage.

The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) temporarily installed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) in San Diego, Calif., is a technology demonstrator built by the Naval Sea Systems Command from commercial fiber solid state lasers, utilizing combination methods developed at the Naval Research Laboratory. LaWS can be directed onto targets from the radar track obtained from a MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon system or other targeting source. The Office of Naval Research's Solid State Laser portfolio includes LaWS development and upgrades providing a quick reaction capability for the fleet with an affordable SSL weapon prototype. This capability provides Navy ships a method for sailors to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)
The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) temporarily installed aboard the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) in San Diego, Calif., is a technology demonstrator built by the Naval Sea Systems Command from commercial fiber solid state lasers, utilizing combination methods developed at the Naval Research Laboratory. LaWS can be directed onto targets from the radar track obtained from a MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon system or other targeting source. The Office of Naval Research’s Solid State Laser portfolio includes LaWS development and upgrades providing a quick reaction capability for the fleet with an affordable SSL weapon prototype. This capability provides Navy ships a method for sailors to easily defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released)

Lasers need a lot of instant energy to be used as a weapon, and engineers had trouble finding the right type of energy source until recently. Now that they have figured out how to weaponize lasers, they are working on making lasers more compact.

One of the reasons that the American military is so keen on lasers is because a laser moves at the speed of light and is very accurate. It also can’t be blown off course, which eliminates collateral damage.

Laser weapons can’t be seen by the human eye, and are also silent, which makes them great for covert operations.

The biggest reason the military is interested in laser weapons has to be the fact that lasers are very cheap. For example, a Griffin short-range missile sells for a minimum of $115,000. A laser shot costs less than a dollar, which makes lasers more practical.

Lasers have the potential to be the next big thing in warfare, but they have a few drawbacks. Lasers generate a lot of heat and have to cool down before each use. Also, the farther the distance a laser travels through the air, the weaker it becomes.

Despite the obstacles, the military feels the positives of having a laser weapon outweigh the negatives. This means that we will be seeing more laser weapons being used in the future.

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