Characterized by descriptions of flying cars and climate-controlled cities, most 20th century predictions about the modern world seem unrealistic in retrospect. Despite our lack of foretold wonders, the United States has still developed futuristic technology, at least in the military: Menacing unmanned drones, shiny new fighter jets, and unbelievably complex computerized intelligence programs have combined to make the tanks and bombers of WWII seem more like chainmail and catapults. Yet through its unending commitment to developing new and improved military capabilities — over 50 percent of the United States’ total discretionary spending will go toward defense this year — the government is steadily moving toward technological innovations that could make even the advanced warfare of today a thing of the past. Laser technology is one of them.
Military use of lasers doesn’t just belong in “Star Trek.” In fact, as long ago as 1962, the Department of Defense was spending $12 million a year on experimentation with laser weaponry — also known as directed-energy weapons (DEWs) — for the Air Force and Army. Now, spending on DEWs has ballooned to over $300 million per year, and while few are in use today, larger-scale testing and implementation should begin in about five years.
The USS Ponce is a concrete example of DEWs in use. Currently roaming the Persian Gulf, the 570-foot long ship is equipped with a 30-kilowatt solid-state laser capable of incinerating seaborne or airborne enemies in seconds. DEWs produce high-intensity discharges of electromagnetic energy that are capable of destroying targets within fractions of a second and even producing small explosions. The weapon has significant advantages over its more conventional comrades; it’s capable of neutralizing threats ranging from missiles to aircraft to sea vessels at the price of just 59 cents per shot (compared to $2.5 million for each standard torpedo fired).
Lasers are cost-effective and efficient — not to mention cool — but their most distinct benefit is their ability to adapt to various types of combat. For example, General Atomics, the company that makes the Reaper and Predator drones for the US military, is already studying the possibility of mounting a DEW onto a drone, with an estimated operation date of 2017. In this way, DEWs could help drones mitigate the risk of unintended casualties. Currently, the United States uses these unmanned aircrafts, usually equipped with standard missile technology, as tools for focused attacks. But while drones minimize the risk to American soldiers, many have criticized their tendency to kill more targets than desired. For example, drones usually fire missiles with large blast radii; as a result, they’re considered more likely to kill innocents or cause unintended destruction than lasers.
However, even with their extraordinary capacity for precision, lasers don’t address prominent concerns about the lack of sufficient intelligence prior to strikes nor do they answer moral questions about whether unmanned drones trivialize human lives in the battlefield. Leaked papers have revealed that about 90 percent of people killed in recent US drone attacks have not been the strikes’ intended targets. Much of this is due to the fact that the heat signatures and weapon detection systems used to locate intended targets on the ground are wildly fallible — examples of their inadequacy include the bombing of a Yemeni wedding after American intelligence mistook the guests’ cars as those of Al-Qaeda operatives. A senior State Department official even quipped that when intelligence picks up “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the CIA will dub it a terrorist training camp. Laser-sharp precision won’t reduce unnecessary deaths if the weapons are still directed toward undeserving civilian targets.
Nonetheless, besides serving as an improved tactical tool for the military, advances in laser weaponry could serve as strategic weapons by effectively deterring conflict. In part, this is because lasers would give a substantial advantage to US troops if hostilities with large conventional armies were to actually break out.
Equipping aircrafts, especially drones, with DEWs transforms the military’s ability to defensively assist ground troops and naval ships. Currently, drones’ limited capacity for ammunition restricts them to isolated assaults before they must return to be reloaded; with laser technology, they would essentially have an unlimited magazine. “You would have a capability for close-air support, aircraft defense, counter-air, and even some types of non-lethal actions,” said General Atomic Vice President Michael Perry, which would allow for “principally defensive missions” instead of the one-off targeted drone strikes of today. Drones as a defensive technology could have critical utility should the United States deploy ground troops, particularly in large-scale combat scenarios. While the United States has other deterrents — like nuclear weapons — lasers would be unique because of their precision, defensive nature, and practicality. Lasers are a technological advantage that not only show comparative technological prowess but also massive tactical advantage. That is, laser defenses would make the day-to-day operations of a ground war significantly easier and more effective, while increasing the costs for any military adversary.
In some ways, laser technology is the legacy of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative — more popularly known as “Star Wars.” Part of that program emphasized the need to build ballistic missile defense (BMD), technology that could shoot down ballistic missiles like the ICBMs that carry nuclear payloads. While the project didn’t get far in the Reagan years — in part because Reagan wanted the technology put in space — a land-based version was revived during the George W. Bush administration. But in recent years, President Obama has dramatically cut back BMD spending. Russian accusations that the technology fuels the next global arms race, tepid support from European leaders, and untenably high costs caused the United States to cancel its plans to install BMD technology in Poland in 2009. Technological and fiscal barriers have even limited domestic missile defenses to scattered systems on warships. Today, there’s still no nationwide missile defense network.
But DEWs offer huge promise in furthering the efficacy of this defense initiative, which could overcome the current challenges to the technology and make it much easier to implement. Funded by the Israeli Ministry of Defense — and broadly sponsored by the US Federal Government — a state-owned Israeli company has recently unveiled technology that uses lasers to shoot down rockets. The technology has many advantages, from its significantly lower costs compared to conventional missile defense techniques, light-speed payload delivery time, long range, and incredible precision. The Pentagon already has plans to attach the Israeli technology to US aircraft and land vehicles to help protect them from ballistic and air-to-surface missiles. In the long run, the technology could be distributed widely, allowing the United States to protect itself against long-range attacks from both nuclear and conventional weapons. While this is years — maybe decades — away, the prospect of BMD is tantalizing. Again, the sheer size of this tactical advantage would also make it act as a strategic deterrent against conflict in the first place.
Despite their glamour, DEWs are still imperfect. While large-scale expansion of the technology is planned, implementation will be difficult and the research will be expensive. Meanwhile, technical challenges to effective BMD systems and intelligence challenges for DEWs’ use on drones still pose hurdles for the advancement of laser technology.
Even with these downsides, DEWs offer unrivaled potential. Their use on the battlefield, especially in a defensive capacity, offers American troops an inimitable advantage over conventionally-equipped foes. This would be extremely effective should the United States deploy ground forces in a foreign country like Syria. In fact, laser-based BMD systems and laser-equipped air and sea crafts offer the ability to so dramatically change large-state military conflict that they may contribute to preventing such conflict in the first place. American failure to invest more seriously in lasers may sacrifice meaningful influence and national security. While American universities and arms manufacturers are hard at work engineering these weapons, more funding is still imperative to accelerate their development. Flying cars can wait, but when it comes to weaponized lasers, the US needs to remain on the cutting edge.
Art by Nadim Silverman