Recent concerns about hypersonic missile technology making its way into both Russian and Chinese arsenals have shone a light on how speed truly remains one of the most potent and powerful tools in the weapons game. Even the most advanced missile defense systems in the world would offer little in the way of defense against a barrage of Mach-6 munitions, and as a result, the United States has already set about both finding ways to counter this new disruptive technology and investing billions into developing it for themselves.

Exceeding Mach 6 is no joke, but even hypersonics fall far short of another rapidly advancing weapons technology: lasers.

The U.S. military has been experimenting with lasers for years, but previous chemical based (COIL or chemical oxygen-iodine) platforms that proved powerful enough to be used as legitimate weapons always also proved too large and potentially unstable for actual use. In recent years however, a number of new methods of producing lasers, like solid state and semiconductor based systems, have been developed — and the Air Force believes they’re now close to creating a reliable laser weapon small enough to be carried on large aircraft like the C-130 and C-17.

C-17 and C-130 on the flight line (WikiMedia Commons)

Further, the Air Force believes that as this technology matures and miniaturizes, it won’t be long before similar weapons can be mounted on America’s stealthiest and fastest fighters, the F-35 and F-15 respectively.

“More powerful lasers have counter-air, counter-ground, and counter-sea applications against a host of hardened military equipment and vehicles at significant range,” a 2016 Air Force Research Laboratory report, called “Speed of Light to the Fight by 2020,” explained. The timetable pitched in that report was actually pretty close — the Air Force now believes they’ll have lasers aboard the aforementioned cargo aircraft by 2021.

Laser weapons on aircraft, if powerful enough, could be used as both a powerful offensive and defensive addition to any mission’s loadout. Traveling at around 186,000 miles per second, a laser could easily intercept incoming missiles or enemy aircraft without allowing any time to change course or evade the beam. Further, lasers would cost significantly less per “shot” than conventional air-to-Air missiles and wouldn’t run out until the power supply was depleted.

At around $600,000 a piece, the AIM-9X is America’s best short-range air-to-air missile. (USAF)

Because of the speed associated with lasers, a single weapon system could be used to target and engage multiple enemy aircraft, missiles, or ground targets. A powerful enough laser could hit all of these targets in such rapid succession that it would seem nearly simultaneous to enemy aircraft closing with a laser equipped plane. Depending on the way the system is mounted, a laser could even engage targets directly behind the aircraft.

The Airborne Laser Project

Read Next: The Airborne Laser Project

“DE (directed energy) could be used as both a sensor and a weapon, thereby shortening the sensor-to-shooter timeline to seconds. This means that U.S. weapon systems could conduct multiple engagements against a target before an adversary could respond,” a Congressional Research Service report on energy weapons released earlier this year stated.

2021 may seem long a long way off — but as 2018 inches toward a close, this announcement means they expect their new lasers to take to the skies before the much anticipated B-21 Raider does. The future may finally be right around the corner.

 

Modified feature image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense