Huge news for real-life ray guns: Electric lasers have hit battlefield strength for the first time — paving the way for energy weapons to go to war.
In recent test-blasts, Pentagon-researchers at Northrop Grumman managed to get its 105 kilowatts of power out of their laser — past the “100kW threshold [that] has been viewed traditionally as a proof of principle for ‘weapons grade’ power levels for high-energy lasers,” Northrop’s vice president of directed energy systems, Dan Wildt, said in a statement.
That much power won’t get you a Star Wars-style blaster. But it should be more than enough to zap the mortars and rockets that insurgents have used to pound American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The battlefield-strength breakthrough is just one part in a larger military push to finally make laser weapons a reality, after decades of unfulfilled promises. The Army recently gave Boeing a $36 million contract to build a laser-equipped truck. Raytheon is set to start test-firing a mortar-zapper of its own. Darpa is funding a 150 kilowatt laser project that is meant to be fitted onto “tactical aircraft.”
Does that mean energy weapons are a done deal? Hardly. There are still all sorts of technical issues — thermal management and miniaturization, to name two — that have to be handled first. Then, the ray gunners have to find the money. The National Academies figure it’ll take another $100 million to get battlefield lasers right.
Still, clearing the 100 kilowatt hurdle is a big deal. For the longest time, the military research community concentrated on developing chemical-powered lasers. The ray guns produced massively powerful laser blasts. But the noxious stuff needed to produce all that power makes the weapons all-but-impractical in a war zone. (One ray gun took as many as eight shipping containers’ worth of chemicals and electronics to power a single blaster.) So the Defense Department shifted gears, and poured money into electric lasers. They’re much less hassle to operate. And, given a steady supply of power, they should be able to fire away, almost indefinitely.