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The Coming Laser Wars?

Sebastien Roblin

Security,

Why future conflicts could be full of “light.”

On June 26 an Apache helicopter successfully tested a high-energy laser pod on targets at the White Sands testing range in New Mexico—the first laser weapon ever employed by a helicopter.

As much as laser-armed helicopters might seem like they belong in a Command & Conquer video game, in reality they are joining a wide variety of ground-, air- and sea-based laser platforms—many of which may be entering service in the coming decades and a few of which are already operational. In fact, a new era of laser warfare may soon be dawning, thanks to lasers’ usefulness for countering two important weapons systems: drones and long-range missiles.

Films like Star Wars depict laser weapons as emitting short pulses of green and red light. However, the “phasers” in the 1960s were arguably a bit more accurate. Real laser weapons project a coherent ray of directed photons (light) that strike their target virtually instantaneously. This beam often streams into the target for several seconds or longer as thermal energy builds up to destructive effect—although some “pulsing” lasers also exist.

However, unlike the weapons in Star Trek, the rays from high-energy antimaterial lasers for use in the atmosphere are silent and generally invisible, as they usually operate at an optical wavelength indiscernible to the human eye. And today’s laser weapons are more likely to burn a hole in a target or cause it to combust, rather than vaporizing it.

Why use a laser instead of a bullet, shell or missile? To begin with, lasers are highly accurate and quick acting, since they are fast as light and mostly unaffected by gravity. This could make them ideal for swatting down small, speedy targets, such as incoming rockets and artillery shells. Laser precision could also be handy for disabling ground or sea vehicles without killing their occupants. Of course, a soundless, invisible and recoilless weapon is also pretty stealthy—if you can get close enough to use it.

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