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US military to test lasers on warplanes in 2014

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A mockup photo of how a B-1 bomber might deploy a laser weapon. (DARPA)

Laser weapons small enough to fit aboard fighter jets could begin ground-based firing tests aimed at shooting down threats to U.S. military warplanes in 2014.

The 150-kilowatt lasers would represent a new class of weapons 10 times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, according to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Pentagon agency issued a special notice on Jan. 17 for General Atomics - Aeronautical Systems Incorporated to build a second laser weapon so that both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy could carry out laser tests by 2014.

Such lasers represent part of DARPA's High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System. They would mainly aim to shoot down rockets, surface-to-air missiles or other weapons that threaten aircraft during the ground-based field testing scheduled for 2014. But the lasers could also possibly act as offensive weapons against some ground targets.

Past military testing included much larger laser weapons, such as the megawatt-class laser weapon that flew aboard a modified Boeing 747 during the cancelled Airborne Laser Test Bed program (1 megawatt is equivalent to 1,000 kilowatts). By comparison, the smaller 150-kilowatt laser could enable smaller military aircraft or even drones to carry it as a weapon.

The Navy's interest in the 150-kilowatt laser weapon involves testing it against surface ship targets before the end of 2014. Past Navy tests have already shown how lasers can shoot down aerial drones and disable small boats. [Video: Navy Fires Laser HEL on Target Vessel]

But the past testing with the Airborne Laser Test Bed — originally intended to hunt ballistic missiles — revealed the existing challenges facing laser weapons. Aerosols, dust particles and weather conditions can make lasers lose focus and limit their effectiveness over great distances.

U.S. military leaders, scientists and weapon experts also don't necessarily see airborne lasers as battlefield game-changers. A series of war games held as part of the NeXTech Workshop at the U.S. Army War College in August 2012 found that laser weapons didn't seem to make a big difference in any of the four scenarios discussed. (Robots and drones evoked much greater enthusiasm.)

Some researchers still see great possibilities for airborne lasers. An Australian physicist recently launched a project on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to help attract money for his idea of testing small lasers that could use just hundreds of watts of power to create electromagnetic pulses that can knock out incoming guided missiles.

That may sound wild by even DARPA standards. But the Australian researcher found a way for people to contribute even if they didn't believe his idea would work — he asked people to donate money in exchange for receiving a copy of his upcoming science-fiction story that imagines a futuristic war between the U.S. and China.

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