Real-life laser guns are on the way.
The Air Force Research Laboratory announced this week that, in just five years, we’ll see fighter jets equipped with laser weapons and sci-fi-style laser shields. The military has experimented with airplane-mounted laser systems since the 1970s, though these were always implemented on larger, steadier planes. Modern fighter jets make nimble, speedy maneuvers that generate vibrations and G-forces that were previously too much for precision laser gear. Experts say the technology is becoming increasingly durable.
The Air Force’s Directed Energy Directorate, which researches and refines directed energy technology for the military, spends roughly a third of its $150 million budget on laser research. The brass says they’ll gracefully solve problems of size, power, and accuracy by 2020. Kelly Hammett, chief engineer of the AFRL, told CNN, “We see the technology evolving and maturing to the stage where it really can be used.” General Herbert Carlisle of Air Force Combat Command said in May that he expects to see a flying laser-equipped prototype “in the next year or two.” The future of war might look a lot like Star Trek.
In the real world, laser weapons work by concentrating light onto a target very intensely, burning through objects until they are destroyed or disabled. Their “ammunition” is effectively unlimited — they only require electricity. As long as an aircraft has the electrical energy to power itself, its laser weapons are loaded.
Beyond firing laser beams at a target, this technology might also serve to make a shield-like laser sphere appear around an aircraft. Enveloped in its own protective laser field, an aircraft could destroy whatever it came into incidental contact with: enemy weapon fire, debris, or even other aircraft.
However, if this ends up being formally deployed down the road, it will need to be presented carefully. The Geneva Convention forbids the deployment laser weapons designed to blind people, deeming them too injurious. A 2007 Pentagon report concurred that blinding weapons should be forbidden, but that the laser technology is otherwise legal to use in battle.