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The effort to weaponise lasers could pay off in the near future. We won’t be seeing planet destroying lasers a la Star Wars any time soon – nor would we want to-,  and laser handguns are likely also some time away from becoming a reality, but the technology has advanced enough to have some real world application very soon.

The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is set to demonstrate laser weapons designed for fighter jets as soon as 2020. Larger planes can already be equipped with laser weaponry, but the size and weight restrictions of fighter jets make it a much more difficult challenge. Matters are further complicated when you factor in the inherent need for accuracy even when the jet is flying at supersonic speeds.

Dr Kelly Hammett, AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate’s chief engineer, is convinced these challenges can be surpassed within five years. With an annual budget of US$150 million for the development of laser technology, Hammett is confident the 2020 goal can be reached.

“It really is a national tipping point,” said Hammet. “We see the technology evolving and maturing to the stage where it really can be used.”

Earlier in 2015 Lockheed Martin has demonstrated a working prototype of their 30-kilowatt fiber laser weapon – ATHENA (Advanced Test High ENergy Asset). Using ATHENA they were able to disable a small truck’s engine from over 1.6 km away. The technique employed in ATHENA is called spectral beam combining. Multiple fiber laser modules are used to form a single concentrated beam that is more both more powerful and lethal than previous approaches.

“Fiber-optic lasers are revolutionizing directed energy systems. We are investing in every component of the system – from the optics and beam control to the laser itself – to drive size, weight and power efficiencies. This test represents the next step to providing lightweight and rugged laser weapon systems for military aircraft, helicopters, ships and trucks,” said Lockheed Martin CTO Keoki Jackson in a press release.