If youre into military technology at all, somewhere in the back of your mind, you want laser guns to happen. Because theyre cool. Han Solo cool. Starbuck cool. James T. Kirk cool.But wanting something to happen is very different from having it happen. And we are still a ways off like a decade, at the very least, and probably more from deployable laser weapons.Which is not the impression youd get from this Space.com article, or the book which it covers, Doug Beasons The E-Bomb: How Americas New Directed Energy Weapons Will Change the Way Wars Will Be Fought in the Future.The U.S. "is on the verge of deploying a new generation of weapons that discharge beams of energy, such as the Airborne Laser and the Active Denial System, as well as the Tactical High Energy Laser, Space.com says.Um, not exactly. The Active Denial System thats the microwave-esque pain ray weve discussed before is getting closer to be fielded, yeah. But the laser systems? No way. The Airborne Laser is billions over budget and years past its initial deadline. The Tactical High Energy Laser, it was cancelled last year. The reason is basically the same in both cases: each weapon relies on giant vats of toxic chemicals to produce its laser light. And very few people in the military feel like hauling all that goop off to war.But Beason I met him last year, and read a galley of his book months before it came out says money can fix many of those woes.
At present, directed-energy systems "are barely limping along with enough money just to prove that they can work," Beason pointed out. Meanwhile, huge slugs of money are being put into legacy-type systems to keep them going."Its a matter of priority," Beason said. The time is now to identify high-payoff, directed-energy projects for the smallest amounts of money, he said.In Beasons view, Active Denial Technology, the Airborne Laser program and the THEL project, as well as supporting technologies such as relay mirrors, are all works in progress that give reason for added support and priority funding.Ive interviewed hundreds of military scientists over the past four years. And nearly all of them have told me the same thing, no matter how far-out their research is: if the government would just give me a couple of hundred million dollars, then if I would have some seriously whiz-bang shit ready to go, pronto.Energy weapon guys often give the same rap. But these chemical-based lasers -- no amount of money is going to solve the logistical headaches of carting around and handling the toxic materials they require.The only alternative, in the (relatively) short term: solid state lasers, which get their energy from excited crystals. The problem is that the power you get from such beams, about 25 kilowatts, is a tiny fraction -- about two percent -- of what the megawatt that chemical lasers produce.There are development efforts underway to boost that power. I just got back from Northrop Grumman's solid state laser lab, which, within three years, could very well have the first solid state laser that the military could conceivably think of as weapons grade. But even if that 100 kilowatt laser comes off without a hitch, we're still looking at a long time before we hit Han Solo territory. Which is too bad, really.