U.S. Military to Begin Testing Lasers on Warplanes & Ships in 2014

In 2014, laser weapons that are small enough to fit aboard fighter jets could begin ground-based firing tests aimed at shooting down threats to U.S. military warplanes. The Navy also plans to test the small lasers against surface ship targets by the end of 2014.

According to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the 150-kilowatt lasers would represent an entirely new class of weapons that are 10 times smaller and lighter than lasers of a similar power. On January 17, DARPA issued a special notice for General Atomics - Aeronautical Systems Incorporated to build a second laser weapon so that the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy could both carry out laser tests by 2014.

These lasers represent a part of DARPA's High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, which would mainly aim to shoot down rockets, surface-to-air missiles or other weapons that threaten aircraft during the ground-based field testing that is slated for 2014. The lasers may potentially act as offensive weapons against some ground targets as well.

The military has conducted testing on laser weapons in the past, but these were much larger, such as the megawatt-class laser weapon that flew on a modified Boeing 747 during the cancelled Airborne Laser Test Bed program. In comparison, the much smaller 150-kilowatt laser could enable smaller military aircraft, and perhaps even drones, to carry it as a weapon.

The Navy is interested in testing the 150-kilowatt laser against surface ship targets before the end of 2014.

Past testing with lasers by the military has revealed some downfalls to the technology. Dust particles, aerosols, and weather conditions have been found to make lasers lose focus and limit their effectiveness over great distances.