"An AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile flies at about 3,000 miles per hour. (The exact figure is classified.) A laser moves at the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second."

The U.S. Air Force once tried to turn a Boeing 747 into an airborne laser. What will it try next? Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

186,000 miles per second? That's 669,600,000 miles per hour. When that line appeared in an article on BreakingDefense last month, it got a lot of people thinking about laser guns as a viable alternative to missiles. As an investor, it got me wondering: Who's winning the race to make these weapons a reality? And who will get them? And when?

Turns out, there are a lot of military contractors involved in the effort to create working laser weapons for the U.S. military -- and for just about every branch of the military. And these weapons could be in the hands of the military sooner than you think.

U.S. Army
Let's start off with the U.S. Army, whose marquee project in the laser field is the High-Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD). HEL MD aims to mount a 60-kilowatt laser cannon on a truck, which can then be used as a mobile anti-air defense system. Fully developed, HEL MD could be used to detonate incoming rockets, artillery, and mortar rounds, blind small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or detonate IEDs on the ground.

Multiple defense contractors have projects in the works aimed at winning an HEL MD production contract. Boeing (NYSE:BA) has tested a 10-kilowatt laser. Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is probably in the lead, having famously released a video earlier this year showing its 30-kW test laser burning a hole through the hood of an F-150 truck.

Athena Truck Test Pirasss
Lockheed's laser gun: 1; truck: 0. Image source: Lockheed Martin.

U.S. Marine Corps
Not to be outdone, the Marine Corps is working on its own laser project, dubbed "Ground Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move Future Naval Capabilities." Mercifully abbreviated and acronymed "GBAD," this project would mount a Raytheon (NYSE:RTN)-built 25 kW laser cannon aboard a Humvee (or perhaps a JLTV). The Marines' goal is for their weapon to target and destroy low-flying aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles.

In a separate project, which we described this past summer, Boeing may have stolen a march on both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Better known for building big 747 jumbo jets, the aerospace giant went small with its new Compact Laser Weapon System. Boeing boasts that LWS breaks down into just four parts, can be transported by a squad of Marines, and fires a 10 kW beam that can track and destroy aerial targets 22 miles away.

The U.S. Navy's Laser Weapon System has been classified as "operational" for more than a year. Image source: U.S. Navy.

U.S. Navy
At sea, where warships offer more room to mount a laser weapon, and powerful gas-turbine engines generate more electricity to give a laser gun added "oomph," the U.S. Navy already has a working laser cannon in operational status aboard the refurbished amphibious transport dock USS Ponce.

According to reports released this year, the Navy's new weapon, built by small defense contractor Kratos Defense & Security and dubbed simply the "Laser Weapon System" (LaWS), has successfully shot down unmanned aerial vehicles and burned holes in moving targets on the water, including fast-moving speedboats. Already more powerful than any other weapon so far disclosed, LaWS produces a 33 kW beam of energy -- and is ramping up to higher powers of 60 kW, 100 kW, and ultimately, one megawatt.

That would be powerful enough to burn a fast-moving ballistic missile from miles away.

Sounds good. When can I get one?
Despite all of the press that laser weapons are generating, this is still a technology in its infancy. The clearest indicator of this is the small dollar value of the contracts being awarded for the tech. LaWS, for instance -- the most powerful laser cannon currently -- is said to be only a $40 million project at this time. (To put that in context, the U.S. Army just spent $200 million on a batch of lead-spitting M4 carbines.)

Probably the best estimate of a timeline for the development and fielding of operational laser weapons, meanwhile, is the one recently laid out by the U.S. Air Force. As related by Air Force Research Labs commander Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, the Air Force has a three-stage development process for the laser weapons it intends to deploy:

  • First will come a Self-protected High-Energy Laser Demonstration laser, or "SHIELD." Powered in the "tens of kilowatts," this will be a defensive, aircraft-mounted laser used to defeat incoming missiles. The Air Force is targeting a demonstration date of 2020.
  • Once that demonstration is proven, things will ramp up quickly. In phase 2, the Air Force plans to demo a longer-range defensive system of 100 kW in 2022.
  • Finally, phase 3 will triple that power output to 300 kW, aiming to create an offensive laser weapon that can be mounted on a fighter jet, shoot down enemy aircraft, and attack ground targets at extreme range.

So, the upshot is that we could still be a decade away from fielding an offensive laser weapon small enough to mount on a fighter jet. But some weapons could arrive even sooner than that. Lt Gen. Brad Heithold, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, thinks it should be possible to begin equipping large combat aircraft such as C-130 gunships with laser weapons as early as "a couple of years" from now. Other former Air Force officers, now working in private industry, posit the development of "150-plus kW lasers" within as little as five years.

The timelines may still be in flux, but this is still clearly the military's goal. As Gen. Heithold explains: "My customer is the enemy. I deliver violence."

And laser weapons are one product the U.S. military wants to rush to market.

Laser-armed AC-130 gunships: Coming soon to a theater (of operations) near you? Image source: BattleSpartan via Flickr.