No Longer Sci-Fi: Laser Guns Are Coming to the U.S. Military

Enemy drone attack threats are a key part of the inspiration for newer kinds of laser weapons because they can incinerate drones without generating large amounts of explosive fragmentation. Moreover, newer lasers can scale attacks to align with the target and desired combat effect and, perhaps most of all, travel at the speed of light to destroy drones quickly, ideally before they are able to strike.

Attacking drone swarms may be approaching for attack so quickly that kinetic responses such as interceptor missile fire control systems may be challenged in certain respects, depending upon the extent of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled target recognition technology and computer automation.

The question of scaling lasers to optimize power input for counter-drone strikes is addressed in a recent essay from May of last year called “Testing the Efficiency of Laser Technology to Destroy Rogue Drones,” in the Security & Defense Quarterly from War Studies University. The essay describes innovative experimental methods of “incorporating a laser module and groups of optical lenses to focus the power in one point to carbonize any target.” Specifically, the research paper explained, a laser lens was adjusted to zero in or focus upon particular distant objects.

“We measured the necessary time to burnt acrylic plastic, wood, and hard carton from a distance of 55 metres. It was noticed that the laser efficiency is proportional to the laser power and time the cannon is turned on,” the essay writes.

In a discussion with The National Interest, Army Futures Command Commander Gen. John Murray made the point that pre-programmed or autonomous drones do indeed potentially present a uniquely difficult, first-of-its kind defensive predicament which requires tailorable solutions. Perhaps AI-enabled defenses can help discern key specifics related to an incoming drone threat and help determine the optimal countermeasure, which may in many cases be lasers.

“When you have little drones operating in different patterns and formations, all talking to each other and staying in sync with one another…imagine that with the ability to create lethal effects on the battlefield. There is no human who will be able to keep up with that,” Murray told The National Interest in an interview.

AI-capable drone defenses can already gather, pool, organize and analyze an otherwise disconnected array of threat variables, compare them against one another in relation to what kinds of defense responses might be optimal and make analytical determinations in a matter of milliseconds. As part of this, AI-empowered algorithms can analyze a host of details such as weapons range, atmospheric conditions, geographical factors and point of impact calculations all in close relation to one another as part of an integrated picture, examine and compare what has worked in specific previous circumstances and scenarios to determine the best defensive response.

Added power to a laser weapon includes the ability to decrease processing time for any kind of kill chain or sensor-to-shooter cycle. While elements of this process can be shortened through the use of AI-empowered computers and automation, doubling the power output from 10kw would likely reduce the kill time from approximately five seconds to two-to-three seconds, Evan Hunt, Director of Business Development for High Energy Lasers and c-UAS, Raytheon, told The National Interest in an interview.

“The laser is a solution with high efficiency that can ruin or intercept autonomously programmed drones, as this cannot be achieved in the same way by the RF jammer or any other solutions,” the War Studies University essay explains.

There are a number of current, high-profile laser weapons development efforts underway including Air Force initiatives to fire lasers from stealth fighter jets, Navy integration of large, powerful lasers onto destroyers and even Missile Defense Agency work on “power scaling” sufficient to use lasers for ballistic missile defense.

Nonetheless, one thing Murray stressed was that, while lasers can offer lower-cost, scalable and highly-efficient weapons systems, they can experience what’s called “beam attenuation” and weaken in certain weather conditions.

“One thing about lasers is they are never going to be the sole solution, because of atmospherics- weather – so you are always going to have some mix of gun, missile and lasers, I think,” Murray explained.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.

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Kris Osborn