The age of lasers has already dawned.
Long experimented with by governments, corporations, and benevolent scientists alike, the modern world is at least a decade away from a laser revolution. But this is only a few seconds historically speaking. Reports of the US military testing various lasers can be found in every direction. In November 2009 a Boeing system called MATRIX (Mobile Active Targeting Resource for Integrated Experiments) shot down six UAVs in New Mexico. Boeing’s Airborne Laser Testbed (ALT) demonstration in February 2010 created more international headlines.
Lasers, lasers, lasers. Always in new tests and new stages of research, in all branches of service.
And developed under new acronyms: HEL (high energy laser), HELSTF (High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility), THEL (Tactical High Energy Laser), SSLTE (Solid State Laser Testbed Experiment), J-HPSSL (Joint High Power Solid State Laser), and FEL (Free Electron Laser).
SSLTE and FEL appear to be winning the scientific and political race, given that the US military identified them as the future of the industry. Boeing’s ALT, a COIL (chemical oxygen iodine laser), disappointed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz in range and power.
“Solid-state, not chemical-based lasers,” he said afterward, “that’s the coin of the realm.”
But that didn’t damper Michael Rinn, vice president and program director of Boeing's Airborne Laser Systems, who said after the test, “It really is a historical event. As we look back... we'll understand how important it was. Some 50 years later, we're out at the speed of light with the new system.”
Why look back later though when we can look ahead now? Lasers will remain in the military sphere until they break out of the battlefield and into ordinary human life. That means they have to transition to the battlefield first - so where will that be?
Though lasers have been theorized and tested for nearly 100 years, only rarely have devices materialized in real conflict zones, primarily for communications and to detonate IED’s in Iraq. The very first waves will soon reach Afghanistan and Israel's missile defense shield, but consider that weaponized lasers are predominantly driven by two functions: RAM defense systems (rockets, artillery, mortars) and non-lethal force.
Variances in laser frequency and chemical makeup don’t obscure the fact that the same laser used to destroy an incoming missile can be trained on an enemy unit and its vehicle. Or a boat off the Somali coast.
Solid-state lasers are already close to the field, one example being Northrop Grumman’s FIRESTRIKE system, and free-electron lasers are close behind. And their future employer tips off how immediate they could see action on the high seas. While anti-missile and the Air Force’s laser experiments receive the majority of attention, the Navy will be the first US military branch to roll out true weaponized systems in a combat environment.
Heavily invested in both solid state and free electron lasers, the Navy possesses two traits conducive to laser deployment that the Air Force lacks: size and stability. Theoretically, Naval vessels should be able to operate exceptionally large lasers with sufficient energy generators, as well as targeting systems capable of tracking hundreds of miles. Current lasers are able to operate with current power sources.
In an asymmetric world, the most logical test subjects of America’s laser technology are no longer equally advanced Russian ICBM’s. The odds favor Somali pirates as the first targets. Signaling lasers are currently used as a bridge until weaponized lasers transition into America’s arsenal. Supposing a laser can fire over 100 miles by 2012-14, the Navy won't need to chase ships so much anchor and fire away. At the motors of boats of course, rendering them motionless, then smaller naval units spaced on a grid could proceed to intercept.
This isn’t to suggest the idea, but to warn it’s already in planning. It makes too much sense not to be considered - Somalia shows no signs of permanent stability. Hard as the US-backed Transitional Federation Government is trying, America and the West have no long-term strategy for ending the conflict. As lasers and computer systems grow even more advanced beyond 2020, and Somalia could still be at war, the temptation will arise to construct a chain of semi-automated laser platforms.
Spaced so their radii cover the majority of Somalia’s coast, a laser blockade around the Horn of Africa isn’t far fetched at all.
The bottom line is that lasers will come upon the human race like the Internet did after the 1990’s, and with this great power comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Though lasers could prove beneficial to combating pirates individually they can’t create stable nations on land - and will create more instability if used in isolation.
That same lesson should be applied across the spectrum as humanity enter its next revolution.