During World War II, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, "we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air," he probably had no idea that his allies on the other side of the Atlantic would one day be mounting high-powered lasers onto attack helicopters and frying targets in the blink of an eye.
But the U.S. military and a leading defense contractor have apparently pulled off such a feat.
On Monday, Raytheon said that it had bolted a laser to a U.S. Army Apache AH-64 helicopter and zapped an unmanned target at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
The weapons test marked the first time a "fully integrated laser system" had successfully located and shot a target from a rotary-wing aircraft "over a wide variety of flight regimes, altitudes and air speeds," the company said in a statement.
Raytheon didn't specify what the target was but said the helicopter's laser "directed energy" on it from nearly a mile away. Unlike the computer rendering of the weapon provided by the company, the laser's beam is invisible in real life.
Video from the missile range shows the Apache flying over the New Mexico desert with the laser – a gray, torpedo-like tube with a ball on the front – attached to the vehicle's right side. Orange cables run from the back of the laser into the interior of the helicopter. At one point the video shows black and white images of a rectangular object with a bright flash in the center of it, captioned "LASER ON TARGET." Dramatic drum music plays in the background. The laser's shots were not shown in the footage.
The goal of the experiment, conducted in collaboration with U.S. Special Operations Command, was to see how well the Apache could fire the weapon given the vibration of the helicopter, the dust kicked up by the rotating blades and the vehicle's "downwash," or downward airflow. The information the team gleaned will be used to further develop the weapon, known simply as a High Energy Laser, or HEL.
"This data collection shows we're right on track," a Raytheon executive said in a statement.
The initiative has been underway for more than a year, according to National Defense Magazine, which reported last May that the military was eyeing a "feasibility test" for the weapon. The magazine quoted an Army official at the time saying that the technology was still in its early stages – not quite science fiction, but a long way from the battlefield.
"The lens we are looking at this through right now is: 'Is it feasible to do this?' We're not at the point where we've laid out a business case to advance it," said Col. John Vannoy, one of the program managers. "I wouldn't say that we're at the tipping point and you're going to see a Star Wars like effect or a Death Star laser hanging off the side of a rotary wing aircraft."
The military is excited about the prospect of weaponized lasers for a number of reasons. For one, they fire in an almost perfectly straight line, making them far more accurate than artillery rounds. They can also be adjusted to destroy or disable different materials with greater precision, which could help reduce civilian casualties in warfare, especially when fired from attack helicopters. Tyler Rogoway, who writes about the military for The Drive, explained how that might work:
Unless you want a fairly large explosion that will obliterate a small building or a few vehicles, the best weapons available to Apache crews are the helicopter's 30mm cannon and the recent addition of laser-guided rockets. Yet even these surgical weapons, with their highly-localized effects on the battlefield, still use high-explosives to make a big bang; if you want to be extremely precise with almost no chance of collateral damage, lasers are the way to go.
If you want a tactical aircraft fighting in a combat zone to destroy a piece of equipment, like a power generator, but without destroying the structure it's attached to, or to disable a vehicle without killing anyone standing around it, you're out of luck unless you have a laser.
On a slightly less gruesome note, laser rounds are a lot cheaper than artillery rounds, which cost tens of thousands of dollars each, as Matthew Ketner, branch chief of the High Energy Laser Controls and Integration Directorate in Virginia, noted last month.
"Unlike a traditional gun," he said, "lasers don't run out of bullets."
Of course, such weapons are designed to destroy structures and take lives, and human rights organizations have raised alarms about their deployment in the battlefield (imagine the unspeakable pain of being burned by a high-energy light beam from miles away). In 1995, the United Nations banned "blinding" laser weapons, which to date have never been used in armed conflict.
Raytheon's claimed success in New Mexico was the latest in a series of highly-publicized tests of laser weapons systems by the U.S. military and defense contractors. In 2014, the U.S. Navy mounted a 30-kilowatt laser gun on the deck of the USS Ponce and blasted some small targets, including a moving speed boat. Video from the demonstration showed a burst of fire and smoke aboard the deck of the boat as the weapon hit its target.
Also in 2014, Boeing published a video claiming to show a 10-kilowatt laser destroying a mortar in mid-flight. The military has also had success this year beaming drones out of the sky using 5- and 10-kilowatt lasers mounted atop armored vehicles. After one exercise, an Army staff sergeant told reporters he lost count of how many he shot down. "It was extremely effective," he said.