The US Air Force is hoping to make laser weapons on aircraft a reality by testing the technology on fighter jets within the next year, but it still faces steep challenges ahead.
The Air Force is keen to test out a low-powered laser on a Lockheed C-130 Hercules military transport aircraft as a proof of concept to show what it can do, but at the moment, this project is still sitting at the top of the US Special Operations Command's list of unfunded priorities.
Numerous tests on laser weapons have been conducted by the Pentagon over the past few decades – in 2009 there was already a laser weapon test on a C-130 that burned a hole in the hood of a truck (a test later replicated by Lockheed Martin in 2015), and in 2014, the US Navy tested out a laser on an amphibious transport dock in the Persian Gulf.
Another interesting test was of an anti-drone laser in 2015, which can shoot down drones from a moving Humvee military combat vehicle.
With so much testing already completed, surely the technology would be close to being ready for deployment, but the laws have not yet caught up. Policymakers still need to work out proper rules of engagement – for example, how and when it is acceptable for laser weapons to be used, and what is the maximum power you can use in what situation?
Not everyone in the US government is keen on laser weapons being used on fighter jets, despite the fact that lasers are much potentially cheaper than traditional guns, missiles and bombs, at least once you manage to shrink their systems down to something light enough to be installed on an aircraft.
One reason for the lack of funding support for the laser weapons project is the fact that previously, the Air Force and the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency invested billions of dollars into putting a laser onto the nose of a Boeing 747 jetliner.
The plan was to use the laser as a defensive measure for shooting down ballistic missiles, but the project was cancelled in 2012 without delivering a working proof of concept. The US Air Force has another chance now, and it is really keen to prove that the technology works.
"I'm pretty optimistic. There are a lot of vendors that are really contributing to and continue to push that technology along," Lt. Gen Brad Webb, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command told Defense One at a recent Air Force Association-sponsored conference.
"There are massive supporters within our government and elsewhere on seeing that this technology has a future. I still contend that an offensive capability — which is what we're looking for in the AFSOC contribution to the effort — is contributing to the defensive aspects that other commands are looking [for]. We need to have this proof of concept."