Lasers are déclassé even in science-fiction nowadays – the guys in Avatar and Mass Effect shoot bullets – and the big Air Force and Army laser programs of the last decade were ignominiously cancelled. So I was surprised at last week’s Navy League Sea-Air-Space conference to hear “directed energy” technology mentioned by no less a figure than Vice-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson as an area where the defense industry should invest.

In what is unlikely to be coincidence, the Navy’s new favorite think-tank, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, had issued a report making the case for laser weapons just days before.

“DoD should support the U.S. Navy as the ‘first adopter’ for weaponizing an SSL [solid state laser] capable of producing a sustainable 100-plus kilowatt beam of laser energy,” the report declared. “Surface ships with sufficient power, space, and cooling are particularly well-suited as platforms for SSLs that could become part of an integrated network to defend against UAVs, cruise missiles, and fast attack craft.”

Why this coming together of lasers, the Navy, and CSBA? The Navy (and the Air Force) love CSBA because of its work on AirSea Battle, the intellectual armature for long-range air and naval operations across the vast Pacific in a future clash with China. But alongside the AirSea Battle concept, and indeed underlying it, CSBA’s collective obsession of much longer standing is the spread of smart weapons, once a Western monopoly but now proliferating to unfriendly states and even well-connected irregulars like the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. CSBA sees the spread of missiles as endangering America’s capacity to project power overseas: Even if they can’t reach the U.S. homeland, ballistic missiles threaten our forward bases, shore-launched cruise missiles our ships, surface-to-air missiles our planes, and anti-tank missiles our ground forces. Their biggest concern is that a well-funded adversary like China, or Iran on a more limited scale, could integrate these missiles into an “anti-access/area denial” system that can shoot down or sink US forces trying to approach, keeping American power at bay for fear of heavy casualties. AirSea Battle is all about defeating such a system/…/