WASHINGTON – It’s been a running joke inside the defense technology community for years: lasers are the weapons of the future ... and always will be.
But while experts have long predicted laser systems, also known as directed energy weapons, are juuuust over the horizon, more and more technology experts have said they believe lasers are truly in the realm of the possible in the near-term for the Pentagon. Which raises the question: who gets them first?
Speaking at the Washington Post earlier this month, Steven Walker, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said, if possible, the Air Force would love to get directed energy up and running tomorrow.
"I never met a four-star general who didn’t want a laser on his airplane,” Walker said. “It would be really neat. That would be a really neat technology and capability.”
But weight remains an issue, Walker warned. Quite simply, the technologies needed to support a laser weapon are heavy. “All this power generation and cooling adds up in terms of weight," he said.
As a result, “I think airplanes will probably be the last, sort of, application of it, but I think we’re very close to having a ship-based capability,” he said. “The Navy’s done some demonstrations in that space. I think ground capability, lasers from the ground, from trucks, are being worked pretty heavily. And those will be closer than a laser on the airplane.”
One capability Walker is specifically excited about is solid-state fiber laser technology, in which researchers bundle together a group of small kilowatt fibers in order to produce a larger beam.
“There are a lot of advantages to doing that from an integration standpoint,” Walker said. “So we’re making pretty good progress on solid state fiber laser technology, being able to look at tens of kilowatts.”
Asked if that means Americans will one day see movie-like beams of energy flying from guns, Walker replied, “It’s always easier in the movies, but certainly you can envision capabilities like that, and I think we’ll be seeing some of that over the next decade.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.