Lasers: Tomorrow Never Comes

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Northrop Grumman

Laser, née L.A.S.E.R. – for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation – might as well stand for Late And So Extraordinarily Recondite (adj., meaning mysterious, esoteric) at the Pentagon. Defense officials talk of laser weapons being just around the corner – remember President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative 30 years ago that was going to knock Soviet missiles out of the sky with them? – but the laser’s tomorrow never seems to arrive.

The latest example is the $5 billion invested in the 747-based Airborne Laser. It made its final flight from California to the U.S. military’s Arizona “boneyard” for unneeded warplanes in February. Earlier, the Advanced Tactical Laser, which had been tested for use aboard smaller C-130 airplanes, also came to an end.

It’s fun to glance back at the hopes lasers have always held for defense types.

“Accelerating trend toward increased lethality in many dimensions of the battlespace threatens U.S. offensive dominance,” Northrop Grumman warned in a 2005 presentation. “Laser weapons can potentially reverse that trend by increasing the ability of U.S. forces to defend against threats that are otherwise difficult or almost impossible to defeat.”

Not only that, a top Air Force laser-fighter said in 2007: they possess “plausible deniability.” Apparently, that means they could be used and the U.S. military could shrug its collective shoulders and ask, “Who, me?” when asked how come some foreign military outpost had been incinerated.

The military and its contractors conquered the challenges associated with sending a narrow beam of energy through air and space strong enough to destroy missiles or metal. But both the technology and — in the case of the ABL, its dubious deployment strategy — doomed them.

Bobbi Zapka

“The reality is that you would need a laser something like 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,” the-defense secretary Robert Gates said. “The ABL would have to orbit inside the borders of Iran in order to be able to try and use its laser to shoot down that missile in the boost phase…and 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.”

In the latest issue of Air Force magazine, an independent but decidedly pro-Air Force publication, John Tirpak surveys the laser’s promise, and its shortfalls:

A snide joke circulates through the laser weapon community: Laser weapons are only five years away—and always will be.

But laser advocates are nothing if not persistent. “We have a tremendous brain trust in our country now, and our first concern is to preserve that expertise, unique, high-energy laser expertise in industry and in the government team,” Army Lieut. General Patrick O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, told a House committee March 6.

Research will continue into weaponizing lasers at Lawrence Livermore and at MIT Lincoln Labs. When might we know if we’ve got a real chance of using lasers as weapons? “If they achieve the milestones they’ve currently looking at,” O’Reilly said, “it will be in the middle of this decade or sooner.” Even less than five years!