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U.S. begins testing laser weapons on fighter jets

Weaponized planes shooting lasers from their noses–it sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.

In 2014 the U.S. military plans to test equipping warplanes with lasers. According to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), these lasers would be 10 times smaller and lighter than current 150-kilowatt lasers. For this new kind of weapon, DARPA has issued a contract with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated to construct a laser weapon for testing by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy.

These new plans are actually part of a history of laser-and-plane related tests, as the U.S. military has tested lasers on planes before. During the now cancelled Airborne Laser Test Bed program, for example, a megawatt-class laser weapon was attached to a Boeing 747. These new plans, however, are for smaller lasers that would allow much smaller planes than massive Boeings to carry the weapons. Even drones, planes guided remotely, could be equipped with these smaller and lighter lasers.

Why equip warplanes with lasers? The technology would be used to shoot down missiles or other threats to aircraft. They could, however, also be used with land-based targets. Previous testing by the Navy has shown that lasers can take down small boats and aerial drones.

As the Airborne Laser Test Bed program discovered, however, there are numerous problems with laser-equipped warplanes. Challenges in the weather, dust particles and aerosols blocking paths, can throw these lasers off course. They could lose focus over great distances, leaving the upcoming testing in 2014 to address these kinds of issues and discover the possibilities with the new technology provided by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Incorporated.

There’s little division on the impact airborne lasers will have on the U.S. military. Many U.S. military leaders and scientists agree that while this technology may prove useful it won’t radically change combat, especially when compared with the potential found in up and coming drone and robot technology.

One Australian physicist, however, is especially intrigued by the possibilites these airborne lasers offer. Adam Weigold launched a project on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, to gain funds and publicity for his sky laser idea. He wants to construct small lasers that can take down guided missiles using a small amount of energy–only hundreds of watts of power.

While his aspirations seem much higher than what’s actually possible, it’s an intriguing idea to have tiny laser beams shoot down massive, fast-moving missiles. Even if Weigold is unsuccessful in his laser testing attempts, his supporters will at least be gifted with a copy of his science fiction novel, Dragon Empire, for funding a sci-fi dream.