Laser weapons, for years the staple of science fiction movies good and bad, may be the future of warfare beyond the silver screen. Around the world, countries are awakening to the military possibilities presented by these real-life death rays.
The 21st century has seen a significant increase in the power, accuracy and versatility of such weapons, and some of the more advanced systems are tantalizingly close to being ready for deployment in the field.
Here we look at the 10 most incredible laser weapons already built or soon to be in service.
10. Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser
Air-to-air laser battles may sound like something out of Star Wars, but a US project seemed intent on turning them into a reality.
The YAL-1 Airborne Laser is a megawatt Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser (COIL) weapon designed for missile defense. The laser is capable of destroying tactical ballistic missiles during their boost phase, before they’ve reached peak velocity.
As images show, a heavily modified Boeing 747-400F carries the laser – which looks like a serious piece of technology! The weapon and its earlier prototypes successfully shot down several missiles during trials, heating their outer casings and causing them to fail due to in-flight stress.
Alas, the program ran into the same barrier as many other technological innovations: cost. The US military calculated that the $1.5 billion jumbo jets – which also cost $100 million a year to operate – would not be a feasible missile defense, and the program was discontinued in 2011.
9. Boeing HEL-MD Laser
The Boeing HEL-MD is a smaller, land-based cousin of the YAL-1. American ground forces currently have relatively limited protection against artillery attacks (apart from taking cover or running like hell!). This 10kw truck-mounted solid-state laser is designed to fill this defensive gap, hitting airborne targets such as rockets, mortars and artillery rounds. In addition, the eight-wheeled truck’s 500-horsepower engine means that it is capable of operating in a wide variety of warzones and conditions.
The HEL-MD project is currently at the field-testing stage. And while the technology is certainly promising, the threshold for a viable military weapon of this type is widely held to be 10 times higher. According to the Daily Mail, “Boeing said their system could ‘subsequently’ incorporate a more powerful laser.”
8. Boeing Laser Avenger
The third high-tech Boeing laser weapon on our list is the heroically named Laser Avenger. The Avenger missile system has been in service since the late 1980s and is used against cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and other airborne threats.
The Laser Avenger is mounted on the chassis of a Boeing Avenger anti-aircraft vehicle. The modified version replaces one of the missile pods with a 1kw laser. So far, the beam has been fired at roadside bombs and small UAVs, and it has proven capable of destroying both such targets in combat-relevant conditions.
Apart from its obvious geek appeal, this weapon system has the advantage of low visibility: there’s no muzzle flash or missile exhaust to give the system’s position away to enemy troops.
7. Raytheon Laser CIWS
The US Navy’s gun-based Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) has a number of limitations: it’s short range, it can only be fired at one target at a time, and it also takes a few seconds to switch targets. Furthermore, even if the weapon system hits its target, it doesn’t offer a guaranteed kill.
One possible solution is to switch to Raytheon’s all-new Laser CIWS, which was unveiled in 2010. The laser is designed to shoot down incoming missiles and aircraft and has a range of more than two miles. Theoretically, it’s even got unlimited ammo, as long as there’s an electricity supply to create photons.
In tests, the beam was able to destroy a drone that was flying at more than 300 mph (see picture). The weapon is also significant in that it’s the US Navy’s first successful application of a solid-state laser in an ocean environment – important because this type of laser has historically had trouble functioning at sea.
6. 1K17 Szhatie (Soviet Laser Tank)
With all of their laser technology, it seems the Soviet research and development boffins were only a volcano base and a couple of shark pools away from becoming full-blown Bond villains. One of their most ambitious projects was the 1K17 Szhatie, which has been dubbed the “laser tank” by the media.
The armored vehicle was developed in the 1970s and ‘80s and was designed to disable enemy optical-electronic systems. The Soviets tried to keep the tank a secret, but drawings of the vehicle reached the Pentagon through defectors. The Szhatie fired an intense laser beam that was focused through artificial rubies. The design was partly based on the earlier Stiletto model, which was not accepted for mass production.
Alas, the laser system proved very expensive to manufacture due to the artificial rubies required, and the program was cancelled after the break-up of the Soviet Union, with the prototypes simply left to rot. The only surviving vehicle was discovered in a military museum near Moscow in 2010 – although unfortunately without its laser projector.
5. Northrop Grumman Vesta II Laser
Weapons manufacturer Northrop Grumman has been researching high-energy lasers since the 1970s. And its latest product, the Vesta II, is a revolutionary compact energy beam that represents a significant leap forward in weapons technology.
The 15kw weapon is a proof-of-concept design that’s significantly more transportable than previous versions. Like its predecessor, the Vesta, it is capable of projecting a continuous beam of destructive energy for up to 20 minutes at a time, with no reduction in potency. The laser also has a very low diffraction rate, making it far more suited to military applications than other lasers.
It may only be a test system at the moment, but this high-powered gizmo looks certain to bring energy weapons one step closer to the front line. (It’s certainly a lot spicier than the Vesta curries that were much loved by the Brits in the 1970s!)
4. Northrop Grumman Tactical High-Energy Laser
Work on the Tactical High-Energy Laser began in the mid-1990s, when Israel and the US agreed to join forces to develop a practical laser weapon known as the Demonstrator. Of the four contractors awarded the project, the main player was Northrop Grumman.
Essentially, the device is a deuterium fluoride laser/chemical laser weapon. During trials run from 2000 to 2004, the weapon proved capable of shooting down multiple indirect fire weapons, including artillery shells, rockets and mortar rounds.
Unfortunately, scaling the weapon down and maintaining its original performance characteristics proved tricky. The Israelis also decreased their funding, and the project was discontinued in 2005 because of the system’s “bulkiness, high costs and poor anticipated results on the battlefield,” according to Missilethreat.com.
Perhaps it was a decision the Israeli armed forces have come to regret, after their armored vehicles took a serious beating from missiles in the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. During the conflict, current chairman of the Israeli Space Agency Ben Yisrael again voiced his interest in developing the weapon.
3. PHASR Rifle
This weapon appears to have been built around its acronym! The Personal Halting And Stimulation Response (PHASR) rifle is a prototype hand-held laser developed by the US Department of Defense. It’s designed to temporarily blind and disorient its target with a low-intensity beam of light.
The PHASR rifle – which looks like something out ofHalo or Avatar – is supposed to be able to incapacitate targets without causing any permanent harm.
Interestingly, laser weapons capable of blinding were banned under the 1995 UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons. However, the PHASR exploits a loophole in the regulations because apparently it does not cause long-lasting damage. As such, the weapon is described as a “non-lethal dazzler.” Any volunteers to act as guinea pigs?
2. Polyus Spacecraft Laser
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union lagged way behind the US when it came to wealth, technology and infrastructure. One of the Soviets’ ideas to counteract this state of affairs – and tip the military balance in their favor – was Polyus, an ambitious concept designed to bring laser defense systems into outer space. Yes, it all sounds very Moonraker.
Work on the project started as early as the 1970s. The resulting Polyus spacecraft, which was launched in 1987, was armed with a 1-megawatt carbon dioxide laser and was designed to destroy American strategic defense initiative (SDI) satellites.
The spacecraft was launched in response to US President Ronald Reagan’s famous “Star Wars” speech, in which he outlined plans to create a strategic ballistic missile defense. However, the Polyus program never got off the ground (almost literally), and the prototype came out of orbit during its maiden voyage after the rocket burned up. Had it been successful, who knows how the Cold War would have turned out?
1. Northrop Grumman Gamma Laser
The Gamma is another Northrop Grumman product that might end up on battlefields in the near future. Its rugged and compact 13.3kw laser design can be combined with other systems, to make a super-powerful weapon that can be customized for specific missions.
Currently, the energy beam has the power to burn through the casing of an incoming drone and destroy its critical components. The device also weighs just 500 pounds and measures 40 inches in height and 23 inches wide – about the size of two microwave ovens. Pretty compact, eh?
The Gamma is part of Northrop Grumman’s FIRESTRIKE line of laser weapons. This family of high-tech weaponry is eventually expected to lead to a weapon that can be used for precise attacks, defense, and situational awareness purposes – all contained within the same system. Watch this space.
Bonus Entry: Information Unlimited Laser Ray Gun
How would you like a ray gun that you can build at home? Well, online science and hobbies website Information Unlimited – who warn that some of the items they carry may be dangerous as well as illegal in some places – has moved the world one step closer by selling plans for laser guns to the general public.
The company’s designs can be assembled at home and include a “futuristic… laser ray gun,” a “burning laser ray gun,” and a heavy-duty laboratory cutting laser. In most cases, plans can be downloaded for a mere $12. Yet, for the less technically minded, Information Unlimited also sells complete versions, which are closer to the $2,000 mark.
Some of the designs listed on the website are capable of producing beams powerful enough to slice through rocks or a block of Styrofoam. They can also “start fires over a considerable distance,” according to the website.
They may not be quite as compact as Star Trek phasers, but these do-it-yourself weapons are still sure to be useful in fighting off the inevitable alien invasion – which we’re sure is due to start any day now.