After more than 30 years of technology development and many billions of dollars in investment, the Department of Defense is poised to operationally deploy its first high-energy laser (HEL) weapon system, the airborne laser. The unique attributes of an HEL—speed-of-light delivery of energy, surgical precision, variable lethality, and multiple target engagement—could significantly alter the balance between offensive and defensive weapons or provide options for nonlethal weapons. On the other hand, the long development period and large outlay of funding to date suggest the significant technical, operational, and policy challenges of fielding such systems.
This paper considers the unique and promising attributes of HEL weapon systems and examines the technical challenges, at both the system and component level, that need to be overcome for an HEL to be competitive against alternative weapon systems. Related operational and policy issues are also discussed. The paper concludes that advances in HEL technology emphasizing speed, precision, and flexibility together with the ongoing transformation of the military services have both indicated the need and provided the opportunity for further HEL development and testing.
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