Soldiers in the U.S. Army may soon be taking to the battlefield with laser weapons, according to a military spokesperson. Speaking to a House of Representatives subcommittee, Army for Research and Technology deputy assistant secretary Mary J. Miller said that tests are currently ongoing to determine the full capabilities of this type of weaponry, and that they could be deployed as early as 2023.
First invented back in 1960, lasers work by making huge numbers of atoms emit light particles called photons, which all have the same wavelength. In contrast to visible light, which comprises unrelated photons of multiple wavelengths, lasers emit "coherent" photons, allowing the laser beam to stay narrow over a long distance. This allows the beam to focus an enormous amount of energy on a single spot, leading to their emergence as the weapon of choice for many science-fiction writers.
However, while lasers already feature in a number of everyday appliances such as CD readers, the energy required to generate laser beams powerful enough to destroy a target is so great that it has so far proven impossible to develop any practical weapons using the technology. In the mid-'90s, for instance, the U.S. Air Force attempted to create a laser weapon using energy from a chemical reaction as its main power input, but found that such vast volumes of chemicals were required for this that the weapon could only be carried on a Boeing 747.
More recently, however, significant progress has been made using coiled optical fibers, which amplify the power emitted by electrical inputs, thereby generating high amounts of energy within a relatively compact unit.
This has led to the development of new laser weapons by both the U.S. Air Force and Navy, with the latter already having deployed a working laser cannon aboard one of its warships in the Gulf, capable of shooting down drones and zapping small boats, as the following video shows.
The creation of new compact laser units also enabled the Army to begin testing high-powered laser cannons mounted upon armored ground vehicles, which can be used to detonate unexploded mines, among other things.
According to Miller, weapons such as this could move from the trial phase to deployment within the next seven years. Although, she insists that the military is proceeding with caution and won’t authorize the use of any laser equipment until all the necessary tests have been completed. “Lasers have been promised for a long time, but they've never held up and delivered what was asked for, so the operators are rightfully sceptical. That's why the army is taking lasers out into operational environments and testing them,” she said in a statement.