Here Come the Lasers: The Dawn of Energy Weapons Is Here

July 24, 2018 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryWorldTechnologyLaser

Here Come the Lasers: The Dawn of Energy Weapons Is Here

Is it possible the maturation of one advanced technology can be such a disruptive innovation to the point where certain types of warfare begin to look different? 


Conventional weapons are more reliable than directed-energy weapons because although they cannot use energy to recharge, they can usually reload if ammunition is available. Too much ammunition on an aircraft will impede its performance and range because of the increased weight, not to mention costs for kinetic projectiles. Barring the possibility of a heavy battery, a laser does not require ammo and is therefore lighter; this is favorable on an aircraft where space and weight impose mission cost and risk.

In Figure 2, the intersection of lines represents the point in time when energy production is so efficient that lasers become a cheaper option than conventional weapons. In weighing the costs and benefits of using a laser versus conventional weapons, a laser is more transportable with a compact energy-storage device and conventional weapons are more reliable because of their trustworthiness and current ability to carry out prolonged operations. Favoring directed-energy weapons over missiles or bullets, therefore, is simply a decision of how much risk a leader is willing to assume in a specific operation. However, lasers will not be able to fully replace kinetic projectiles since a laser’s ability to destroy targets could be vulnerable to atmospheric conditions (i.e. moisture, dust, etc.).



Directed-energy weapons could take armed aircraft to a new frontier in the capabilities they provide the joint force. Anti-personnel aerial lasers, specifically, have advantages making them superior to other accurate weapons because of their speed, greater accuracy, and maneuverability. If integrated into close air support and interdiction missions, directed-energy weapons would greatly enhance the operational effectiveness in each. Regardless, for now, high-energy directed-energy weapons can only apply enough heat to slowly burn material and give personnel an unforgettable sunburn.

In order for lasers to be permissible in warfare against ground personnel, we must develop directed-energy weapon technology so it produces enough energy to instantly kill an individual and not cause illegal and unnecessary suffering in accordance with the Laws of Armed Conflict and Geneva Conventions. In parallel, because these weapons involve instant kills from incineration, the Laws of Armed Conflict should be revised to allow for incendiary weapons as long as they do not cause unnecessary suffering, fulfilling the intent of the law. The Air Force expects to test destructive directed-energy weapons on AC-130 Gunships in the coming year in hopes of overcoming the numerous problems that the Airborne Laser Program suffered when it attempted to operationalize a Boeing 747 for ballistic missile defense.[19] As for anti-personnel lasers, it is critical that the defense industry work in concert with the federal government to go through innovation and testing procedures quickly, limiting bureaucratic barriers from impeding the acquisition process. For the sake of improving our ability to fight tomorrow’s wars and save the lives of friendly forces, the U.S. military should pursue development of anti-personnel aerial lasers because of their potential contribution to the air domain and the effects it will likely have on other warfighting domains.

Robert Hunter Ward is a U.S. Air Force officer and recent graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force Academy, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: Northrop Grumman


[1] Kelsey D. Atherton, “Could Lasers be the Future of Anti-Missile Weapons?,” Popular Science, July 22, 2014.

[2] Atherton, Popular Science.

[3] International Committee of the Red Cross, Rule 85: The Use of Incendiary Weapons against Combatants.

[4] International Committee of the Red Cross, Additional Protocol I to Geneva Conventions, Article 35: Basic Rules.

[5] Bengt Anderberg and Myron L. Wolbarsht, Laser Weapons: the Dawn of a New Military Age (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 2-3.

[6] T.X. Hammes, “The Changing Character of War,” The Journal of International Security Affairs, no. 26 (2014).

[7] Derek Hawkins, “Laser-equipped Helicopter Zaps its First Target,” Washington Post, June 27, 2017.

[8] Terry Pierce, “Learning to Ride Tsunamis,” Proceedings, November 2015, 68, U.S. Naval Institute.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Charlsey Panzino, “Air Force to Begin Exploring Use of Defensive Laser Weapons on KC-135s,” Air Force Times, November 14, 2017.

[11] Hawkins, Washington Post.

[12] Sydney J. Freedberg, “Army Races to Rebuild Short-Range Air Defense,” Breaking Defense, February 21, 2017.

[13] C. Kumar N. Patel and Nicolaas Bloembergen, “Strategic Defense and Directed-Energy Weapons,” Scientific American 257, no. 3 (1987): 39.

[14] T.G., “Defense: Light Brigade,” ASEE Prism 25, no. 8 (2016): 15.

[15] Michael R. Gordon, “ISIS Leader in Afghanistan is Killed by Drone,” New York Times, July 14, 2017. U.S. killed Abu Sayed—leader of Daesh in the Khorasan Province of Afghanistan—in July 2017.

[16] Steven Walkins, "High-Speed Missile Tester is Planned," Air Force Times 56, no. 42 (1996): 24.

[17] Neil Halpern, “Battery Advancements Set To Accelerate Electric Car Adoption,” Forbes, August 7, 2017.

[18] Michael Fabey and Kris Osborn, “Navy to Fire 150Kw Ship Laser Weapon From Destroyers, Carriers,” Scout Warrior, January 23, 2017.

[19] Colin Clark, “AFSOC Expects C-130 Laser Tests Within Year,” Breaking Defense, March 2, 2017.