Two years ago, the U.S. Army handed Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.68%) $25 million, and received in return a high-energy laser capable of burning holes in a Ford F-150 at distances of more than a mile.
Three years ago, the U.S. Navy invested $40 million and got a 33-kilowatt "Laser Weapon System" (LaWS) capable of shooting down drones and blowing up small patrol boats.
Now, the Air Force wants a laser of its own -- and it's willing to spend $120 million to get it.
Laser gunships, v. 1.0
As revealed last year, the U.S. Air Force wants to field a 200 kilowatt laser cannon by 2020 -- and it appears to be three-quarters of the way to getting it. Mounted on an AC-130 aircraft, a 200 kW weapon would give Air Force special forces a "laser gunship" capable of blasting targets miles away, with pinpoint accuracy, extreme destructive power, and no way of telling who is doing the shooting (because the laser beam won't be visible to the naked eye).
To achieve that goal, the Air Force is asking Congress for $120 million in funding to build a prototype 60 kW laser, then scale it up to at least 150 kW en route to the hoped-for 200 kW.
Is this really possible?
Yes, it is. As reported by National Defense Magazine last week, the Air Force is already testing a Predator drone equipped with a 150 kW laser at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico (presumably with an upgraded engine -- the standard engine on a Predator is rated for only 86 kW, some of which is presumably needed for flight).
In any case, the four Rolls-Royce T56-A-15 engines that power an AC-130 each produce 3.9 megawatts of power, plenty of juice to keep a 200 kW laser cannon humming. And the AC-130 is a whole lot bigger than the Predator as well. If a 150 kW weapon can be mounted on a drone, it would easily fit aboard a gunship.
As Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments senior fellow Mark Gunzinger attests, "the technology is ready" for the deployment of laser cannons on AC-130s. Further out, the Air Force is working to continually shrink the size and weight of its laser prototypes to a point where, at "5 kilograms per kilowatt," these weapons could be installed on a whole host of smaller aircraft as well, both manned and unmanned.
What it means for investors
Defense contractors are champing at the bit to begin building these systems. As NDM reports, both Northrop Grumman (NOC 1.17%) and Boeing (BA 2.24%) are advocating for the Pentagon to produce "programs of record" for the various military branches to begin buying laser weapon systems. (Both Boeing and Northrop Grumman have established laser weapons development programs.) Raytheon (RTN), too, is pushing for the military to adopt this "game changing capability."
Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, builds both laser weapons and the AC-130s that the Air Force wants to bolt them onto, giving it two big reasons to be enthusiastic about the Air Force's new program.
For investors in the industry, this is an exciting development, as the dollar figures being invested in the technology grow larger and larger in tandem with technological advances. Rollout may be slow at first -- according to Air Force Special Operations Command chief Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, the Air Force plans to have just "three or four" laser-equipped AC-130s by 2020. But given the advantages -- a new weapons system that no potential foe possesses, literal light speed from turret to target, and the well-advertised "dollar-a-shot" cost advantages of laser weapons over projectile weapons -- the only question that remains is how soon these weapons will arrive in the field.
Laser weapons are coming. And the money is already here.