Are lasers handy as a military weapon

The anti-aircraft missile approaches the fighter jet at breakneck speed. Instead of dodging, the pilot stops at the projectile. Before the enemy missile hits, it explodes in mid-air without causing any damage. A laser beam emitted from a cannon aboard the jet eliminated the threat.

Laser weapons as part of "self-defense", this is how the armaments company Lockheed Martin envisions the future of the US Air Force. The company announced this week that it was working on the development of such a laser system. The Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), a research division of the US Air Force, hired Lockheed to develop a laser system for aircraft for $ 26.3 million. The laser is to be tested in flight within four years.

Euphemistically, laser weapons are also called "targeted energy"

Two years ago, Lockheed tried to turn off the engine of a pickup truck with a laser on the ground. The energy was strong enough to destroy the hood and set the engine on fire. Now the developers want to make the laser so small and light that it can be mounted on a combat aircraft. The US Navy has also tested prototypes of laser weapons.

In the euphemistic language of the military, laser weapons are also referred to as "directed energy". For the US Air Force, the radiation cannons are of great strategic importance, as the research department writes in a report. The Air Force hopes to be able to shoot down drones or so-called supersonic weapons, for example. Russia and China, for example, are said to be working on such projectiles, which can fly at several times the speed of sound.

In total, the Air Force and the DARPA research division of the Pentagon are currently investing around US $ 500 million in research into laser weapons. In addition to Lockheed, other armaments companies are working on the laser system for fighter jets. Northrop Grumman is to contribute the target acquisition system for the laser, Boeing to develop the energy supply and cooling of the beam weapon.

The fact that lasers are now being used for military purposes is due to technical developments. Older lasers needed a gas or crystal as a medium to amplify light waves, as well as precisely adjusted optics made of mirrors. This design is too delicate to be used in aircraft, for example. In contrast, so-called fiber lasers usually generate bundled light beams within a fiber optic cable, which enables smaller and more stable constructions.

Since they only need electricity for operation, such electric lasers have a "practically infinite magazine size," rave the AFRL military researchers. The energy could easily be provided by batteries. However, the technology does not seem to be that easy to master. The Air Force is promoting the research program "Speed ​​of Light to the Fight by 2020". In the announcement, Lockheed now speaks of 2021 as the targeted date for the first tests. A report for the US Congress comes to the conclusion that many technical questions relating to laser systems have not yet been resolved.

Many scientists are critical of the development of radiation weapons. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), for example, warns that soldiers can very easily go blind when using laser weapons. Therefore, the use of "anti-personnel lasers" is internationally prohibited by a UN convention.