Tactical laser weapons technology entering its most difficult phase

By John Keller, Editor in Chief

Tactical laser weapons technology is maturing so rapidly that installing lasers as weapons on fighter aircraft, surface warships, armored combat vehicles, and even unmanned vehicles is becoming imminently possible. Laser designers at some of the nation’s most prominent defense companies have created prototype laser weapons that have demonstrated the ability to destroy small attack boats, as well as incoming rockets, mortar rounds, and artillery shells.

Those interested in the future of laser weapons should be encouraged by the developments outlined in this month’s special report on tactical laser weapons on page 12, but experts warn that making the leap from the most promising laboratory technology to a deployed weapon system is long, dangerous, and often has little chance of success.

In fact, seasoned military technology developers have a macabre term that describes the dark and dangerous phase between successful technology research and development and moving this technology into a U.S. Department of Defense program of record for deployment to the field.

It’s called the Valley of Death.

Although it might seem somewhat counter-intuitive, it’s true that military technology developers and technology users live in two wholly separate worlds, in which priorities, funding, expertise, and other crucial resources seldom mesh. While technology developers inhabit a universe dominated by ideas, searches for funding, prototypes, field testing, and what seems like a never-ending string of goals and milestones, technology users live in a land of user requirements, technology roadmaps, cutthroat competition for an ever-diminishing supply of defense dollars, and a fluid set of requirements.

For those new to the process—particularly those on the technology research-and-development side—it can be heartbreaking to see potential solutions fail to see deployment that have every reason to succeed, and would seem to meet an overwhelmingly vast set of user requirements.

It’s an old story that has seen seemingly can’t-miss solutions fail to catch on, languish in neglect, and ultimately be forgotten.

Sometimes these new technologies wither on the vine because no one can find an application immediate enough and affordable enough at any given moment in time to create the momentum necessary to see technology to fruition. Sometimes competing technologies tend to cancel one another out, and in other instances no one can settle on one technology long enough to see it to deployment, always waiting for the next new and more-promising thing.

So it is with tactical laser weapons technology today. Northrop Grumman has demonstrated laser technology able to defeat swarming attack boats and incoming cruise missiles. Other companies, such as Textron Defense Systems, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Boeing, have demonstrated laser weapons technology for destroying incoming ballistic missiles, blasting mortars out of the sky, and destroying moving targets on the ground.

So why would we not hear troops deployed in combat zones screaming for laser weapons? It boils down to a lack of understanding at the user level of how laser weapons might influence tomorrow’s battlefield.

“The military user has a mission need, and is used to his conventional systems,” explains Robert Gregory, director of laser systems at Textron Defense Systems in Wilmington, Mass. “We have to get to the point where there is a firm requirement, and that gap is still gaping.”

So, we wait. We wait for system requirements from the military services, for money to be freed up, and to see if more promising technologies might surpass today’s technology. We wait…and we hope we’re not waiting for a ship that never comes in.

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Mil & Aero Magazine

May 2015
Volume 26, Issue 5
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