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Light Artillery: Are Laser Weapons the Future, or Just Hype?

Defense contractors have been trotting out new weapons systems. But will they ever be ready for battle?
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In the future, lasers could swivel on military planes, blasting missiles as they screech from above, below or behind. It sounds like something from “Star Wars,” but the developers of the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret hope to make it a reality.

On the ground, the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) has already proven it can zap drones, rockets and other flying objects. Both were recently touted as the future of military hardware. Not everyone is convinced.

“I would be surprised if it actually becomes a useful weapon in the next 50 years,” Rebecca Slayton, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Science & Technology, told NBC News.

Press 'X' for Laser

Blowing targets out of the sky with the HEL MD is as easy as picking up an Xbox controller. Once the Oshkosh truck is parked, soldiers can fire the 10-kilowatt laser the same way they blast aliens in “Halo.” The idea was to create an interface that soldiers were familiar with. (It can also be set to fire autonomously).

The truck-mounted laser is not ready for the field yet. Dave DeYoung, directed energy systems director for Boeing, thinks it might be in as little as two years. When the HEL MD is ready, it could finally provide countries with missile defense systems that don’t cost a fortune.

“We’re basically now able to shoot down a mortar or drone for the cost of a cup of diesel fuel,” DeYoung told NBC News. That is a big contrast from the missile defense systems currently in use by countries like Israel, he said.

“They are firing a $2 million to $4 million dollar missile to shoot down a $4,000 UAV.”

Lasers 101

The lasers being tested today are not like one used by the Death Star in "Star Wars," obliterating targets with a massive energy blast. Instead, they are like high-energy drills, boring holes through the casing of drones and missiles.

"At the moment, you need a lot more power to produce a laser than you get out of them," Ben Goodland, senior weapons analyst at IHS Jane's, told NBC News.

Previous generations of military lasers obtained their energy from chemical reactions. Those have been abandoned in favor of solid-state lasers, which are more efficient and don't require carrying around dangerous chemicals.

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Still, even today's best lasers release around 80 percent of their energy as heat. That is a lot of energy wasted, not a good thing when you need to rely on a mobile power source.

Science Fiction

The idea of lasers as a precise weapon that could “surgically remove” threats gained traction in the 1960s and 1970s, Slayton said, especially with the popularity of movies like “Star Wars.” In the 1980s, the Cold War and the ugly specter of nuclear weapons prompted President Ronald Reagan to unveil his infamous Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars,” which would use lasers to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles from space.

It did not take off. So why are laser weapons — after decades of failing to live up to their promise — still being pursued?

“There is this cultural commitment to the idea of laser weapons,” she said. “It’s a beautiful idea. It sounds very clean.”

Promise and Problems

Boeing's system relies on batteries that are recharged by the vehicle's generator. This portable power source makes the company's lasers ideal for the battlefield, said DeYoung.

Still, the HEL MD currently uses a 10-kilowatt laser — far less powerful than the 50-kilowatt laser Boeing eventually wants to use. It's also not clear what range the device can destroy targets from, as Boeing said it could not disclose that information.

The ABC turret from Lockheed Martin has shown that it can compensate for turbulence to lock onto a target to provide 360-degree coverage for an airplane. It has not, however, actually used a laser to destroy something in the air.

Those don't exactly sound like battle-ready weapons. Even if lasers became commonplace, Slayton said, counter-measures could be developed. A rotating missile, for example, would force the laser to essentially saw through the exterior instead of boring a hole through it.

Yet funding for these weapons is not likely to decline anytime soon, according to Slayton.

“You have this institutional base of laser research that has been sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, and turning that funding off is very difficult," she said.

Goodland agrees that there are "significant barriers" to laser weapons becoming a key part of the U.S. military's arsenal. When asked whether it's worth pursuing the technology, however, he responded, "Absolutely."