Russia and China recognize the low-cost efficiency of lasers. Does the Pentagon?

For 20 years, from the first Gulf War to the recent bombardment of Libya, the U.S. military has had few difficulties deploying and supplying its forces. Rivals and would-be enemies—from China to Hezbollah—have taken note, and they’re moving to acquire long-range, precision-guided weapons that would threaten our forces by creating mass “kill zones” around airfields, ports and supply depots. This threat is far more formidable than the roadside bombs encountered by our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Pentagon is aware of this threat, but its approach to addressing it is old-fashioned and expensive. Despite looming budget cuts, it continues emphasizing multimillion-dollar interceptors to shoot down missiles and rockets that enemies can field at a small fraction of that cost. This places our military at the wrong end of a cost competition that our enemies will be only too happy to continue.

There are ways for the U.S. military to defend itself more effectively from such attacks while imposing costs on our enemies. Part of the solution is to attack enemies’ rocket and missile launchers on the ground, destroying their weapons before they can be used. Yet such “suppression” attacks require finding and destroying highly mobile missile launchers, artillery and mortar units, which is a difficult challenge.

A better, complementary approach would exploit technologies that can dramatically reduce the cost of this work—specifically, a new generation of high-power lasers.

Previous high-power laser weapon prototypes had insufficient power, were too bulky, or both. The recently cancelled Airborne Laser, a chemical laser carried on a Boeing 747 aircraft modified for military use, is but the most recent example of a laser weapon that failed to realize its promise.

Yet like submarines and torpedoes—which for decades in the late 19th century were considered little more than interesting toys, only to quickly emerge as powerful weapons in World War I—lasers may finally be coming into their own.