Welcome to the Laser Wars

The age of the laser weapon is finally upon us.

The United States Army has officially sent a pair of high-energy laser weapons overseas to defend American troops and US allies against enemy drones, the service recently revealed, marking the first publicly known deployment of a directed-energy system for air defense in military history. And, according to a top official, those weapons are actively blasting threats out of the sky.

The weapon, known as the Palletized High Energy Laser (P-HEL) and developed by the American defense contractor BlueHalo based on the company’s 20-kilowatt Locust Laser Weapon System, first arrived in an unspecified location overseas and “commenced operational employment” in November 2022, according to an April press release from the company. A second system arrived overseas “earlier this year.”

While the Army initially declined to indicate where the P-HEL systems were sent and whether they had achieved a “kill” against an adversary drone, citing operational security concerns, the service’s top acquisition official recently confirmed that the new laser weapons had in fact succeeded in neutralizing incoming threats in the Middle East.

“They’ve worked in some cases,” Doug Bush, the Army’s assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics, and technology, told Forbes this month. “In the right conditions, they’re highly effective against certain threats.”

News of the P-HEL’s deployment comes as the US military seeks to aggressively bolster its air defense capabilities amid a dramatic increase in drone and missile attacks against US troops by Iran-backed militias in the Middle East, as well as against US Navy warships operating in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels in Yemen following the October 7 attack in Israel by Hamas.

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict, the US Defense Department has been slowly but surely hinting at the use of laser weapons downrange. But the arrival of the P-HEL in the Middle East for operational use is a technological victory for the US military, which has actively pursued research related to directed-energy weapons since the 1970s. Even more significantly, it may also represent a tipping point for the development and use of laser weapons more broadly by militaries around the world.

BlueHalos LOCUST Laser Weapon System

BlueHalo’s LOCUST Laser Weapon System (LWS) combines precision optical and laser hardware with advanced software, artificial intelligence (AI), and processing to enable and enhance the directed energy “kill chain”.Photograph: BlueHalo

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Following its creation in 1960 by American engineer and physicist Theodore Maiman, the laser—technically an acronym for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”—almost immediately became a futuristic weapon of choice among both science fiction writers and military planners. This wasn’t surprising: While Maiman touted the potential scientific applications of his discovery when he first unveiled it to the country later that year, the laser immediately conjured up visions in the public consciousness of the Martian “heat ray” from H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, so much so that many of the contemporary headlines from its debut were variations of the Los Angeles Herald’s “L.A. Man Discovers Science Fiction Death Ray,” according to Jeff Hecht’s book Beam: The Race to Make the Laser. “In reality, the laser was more of a Life Ray than a Death Ray,” Maiman would later recall thinking of his invention’s medical applications, according to his memoir.

The Pentagon began exploring the military applications of lasers almost immediately, from relatively practical uses like designators for laser-guided bombs to more far-fetched concepts like the Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, also known as “Star Wars.” But only in the past few decades has the underlying technology advanced to the point where laser weapons are effective against their intended targets.

In the mid-2000s, the Air Force successfully used its Boeing 747-based YAL-1 airborne laser to defeat ballistic missiles in flight during tests, while the Army’s Humvee-mounted Zeus-HMMWV Laser Ordnance Neutralization System system deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq to zap landmines, improvised explosive devices, and unexploded ordnance. By 2014, the Navy’s AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (LaWS) was successfully disabling drones and small boats during testing from the bow of the Austin-class amphibious transport dock USS Ponce in what the service billed at the time as the world’s first “active laser weapon.” (When the Ponce was decommissioned in 2017, the LaWS’s successor system, the Technology Maturation Laser Weapon System Demonstrator, was installed on the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Portland, which successfully tested it in 2020 and 2021).

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