Optical warfare: laser weapons on fighter jets
The US Air Force is investing heavily into developing "optical warfare" - laser defensive and offensive weapons to be mounted onto fighter jetsNick Kaloterakis

The US Air Force has chosen Virginia-based defence contractor Engility Corporation to develop new defensive and offensive laser weapons to help drive optical warfare.

Engility has been awarded $8.5m (£6.8m) to research new ways that infrared, ultraviolet, lasers and visible light can be used as optical radiation weapons that can be armed onto military aircraft, as part of the US Air Force's Optical Radiation Bioeffects and Safety (ORBS) programme.

Optical warfare means using light instead of radio waves tor communications, sensors, weapons, surveillance and defensive measures. It is one aspect of the emerging military discipline "spectrum warfare", which includes electronic warfare and cyber warfare.

The defence contractor will also be researching new ways to treat injuries caused by optical radiation, as well as formulating a system for caring for casualties during optical warfare, such as triage, diagnosis and treatment processes. As part of this work, Engility will have to simulate what laser injuries would look like.

The main point of a laser weapon would be to seek to temporarily blind enemies and cause confusion, but at the same time, the military also requires protection so that its own pilots will not succumb to such attacks from the opposite side.

However, at the moment lasers are unwieldy and difficult to mount onto aircraft and other military vehicles, so most work at this point is mostly conceptual. Engility has been tasked to develop the weapons by April 2020.

The US Air Force wants to begin testing out a low-power laser on a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft as a proof of concept to show what it can do, but it is dependant on receiving additional funding from the federal government.