NATO, Russia, and China have been engaged in a new arms race for quite a while. The top prizes now include hypersonics, railguns, and lasers. After years of study and development, not to mention billions of dollars spent, the three technologies are now finally starting to take shape.
At the end of 2019, Russia became the first country to successfully test a hypersonic missile. It was the 21st century equivalent of the US testing the first atomic warhead in 1945. The entire world sat up and took note.
Railgun technology has reached the stage that the US Navy is assessing the viability of equipping warships with such weapons. The main disadvantage is the enormous amount of power required to fire such a weapon. It is unknown how railgun technology will translate to real-world combat, but it has the potential to be catastrophic. A missile traveling at seven times the speed of sound will surely wreak havoc. And so do hypersonic missiles. But what about lasers?
The Fascination with Laser Beams
Some of the very first science fiction novels featured ‘spacemen’ outfitted with laser guns. Indeed, popular science fiction franchises such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and others popularized the idea that armies in the future (or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) would be equipped with laser weapons.
Imagine our disappointment when we learned that real-world laser weapons did not fire laser bolts but a tiny beam of light that sets everything on fire. Nevertheless, it has not deterred researchers in the field from laboring for decades to perfect the science behind lasers and not without reason. Despite a lack of visual effects, laser weapons are a very powerful and low-cost alternative to pretty much any modern-day weapon. Apart from being “laser” accurate, laser weapons do not have the issues associated with heavy or volatile ammunition. There is, in fact, no ammunition whatsoever.
Scientists at Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace company, has developed a laser weapons system. It uses AI to fuse many fiber lasers into a unified, more powerful beam. This boosts its effectiveness while reducing the size of the equipment. The result is a compact, formidable laser weapons system that can hit an enemy with fatal precision in the snap of a finger.
What Are the Advantages of Laser Force?
It makes sense to introduce laser technology to military units and infrastructure.
Firstly, there is a cost-cutting component. Guns and missiles cost militaries all around the world astronomical amounts of money. Gunning down hostile drones with $100,000 interceptor missiles is a costly way of conducting business. A laser is literally a point-and-shoot device. It only costs the price of some energy.
Additionally, if you miss the shot, simply move the laser till you hit the target. There will be no crossfire affecting friendly assets or civilians. There will also be no gunfire or missiles flying off into the horizon to strike who knows what.
As long as the battery holds, the troops will be in the fight. There is no need to worry about running out of ammo. There is also no risk of ammo exploding as a result of a lucky strike from enemy rockets.
We are still several years away from high-tech, laser-armed armies marching across alien worlds. However, Lockheed Martin is conducting field tests for the ground-based Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) system. This prototype laser weapon system is designed to track and destroy low-value threats such as drones, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and small boats.
How Will Lasers Change Modern Warfare?
In some ways, the introduction of laser systems will simplify warfare. Lasers will replace the mind-boggling assortment of guns, explosives, and warheads. They will, of course, vary in appearance depending on who makes them; some will be larger, more destructive, and more effective on the field. However, one laser will be very similar to another and be just as capable of disarming or killing the enemy.
Herein lies the biggest difference between laser weapons and conventional weapons, lasers are high-precision military weapons. They do not cause indiscriminate destruction. They inflict targeted and controlled damage. A laser only hits the target, unlike a conventional airstrike, which causes much destruction to take a single target. So, instead of sinking a ship, you can hit its engines or disable its weapons system.
Infantry hits can still kill, but wounds will be cauterized, which means non-critical injuries will remain. All of this translates to a much cleaner, safer approach to fighting a war with less political fallout. Cities will not be leveled, and civilians will not be slaughtered in aerial bombardments or caught in the crossfire. This dramatically simplifies the process of rebuilding and restoring diplomatic relations between countries.
Despite Obi-wan Kenobi’s claim that blasters are so primitive, they are a huge step ahead compared to where we are now. If laser technology can be refined and made man-portable, we may be on the verge of turning science fiction into a reality.