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US aerospace giant Boeing has announced plans to demonstrate laser energy weapons for battlefield use within months.

Speaking at the annual Space and Missile Defense Conference in Alabama last week, unnamed company officials revealed the plans to journalists from Aviation Week.

Boeing is already a leader in the field of astounding porktastic raygun tech, as maker of the controversial Airborne Laser (ABL) jumbo jet blaster-cannon system. However, the ABL isn't slated for a live test until next year - a deadline already postponed several times - and even if this is achieved there are questions as to whether the laser 747 will ever be any use. Boeing also has a development beam-control contract for the US Army's planned enormous-truck mounted beam weapon, which could fry incoming artillery shells or mortar bombs in mid-air.

Big, high-power lasers aren't easy to make. The main technology available now which can put out a beam capable of actually destroying or melting stuff - as opposed to merely lighting it up or warming it gently - is the chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL). COIL is fuelled by a mixture of chemicals and is big and heavy; but it can generate beams with energies in the hundreds of kilowatts. The ABL blaster-jumbo will be a COIL system, and the US airforce also has a plan to use COIL rayguns aboard C-130 cargo planes.

But COIL lasers aren't ideal. They need large amounts of fairly exotic hazmat fuel, emit lots of toxic crap when fired, and they aren't going to be portable by anything less than a cargo plane any time soon. Electrically powered solid-state lasers, on the other hand, can be as small and handy as you like; but even when the juice is available it's hard to build a solid-state laser that can throw a powerful beam. It's generally reckoned that a 100 kilowatt beam is about the minimum necessary for battlefield use, and solid-state laser tech isn't at that level yet.

While they're waiting for a solid-state laser that can do 100kW, Boeing want to get on and build some frikkin' rayguns already. This could be something to do with the fact that their rivals Raytheon reckon they can get useful results with existing off-the-shelf low power fibre lasers.

"We were tired of waiting for that ultimate laser," Raytheon raygun exec Mike Booen told Noah Shachtman of Wired, last week.

"So we decided to do something ourselves."

Raytheon and the US Navy claim they can zap falling mortar shells usefully fast, with ordinary weak electric lasers, right now. They have a plan to replace some of the anti-mortar robo-guns being used to defend US bases with lasers. So far though, they haven't had much joy in getting any Pentagon money, leading Shachtman to ask:

"If this system is so good, why won't anyone in the Defense Department pay for it?"

Perhaps because it isn't really that good.

Meanwhile, the centrepiece of Boeing's new push into the low powered battle-blaster sector is a so-called "Laser Avenger" system, a Hummer-mounted one-kilowatt laser. The company reps reckon this could be used to blow up roadside bombs from a safe distance, or cook off dangerous unexploded munitions. They admit, however, that this might involve focusing the feeble beam on a target for up to 40 minutes to get a useful result. That makes sense - after all, allowing for real-world losses, a 1KW laser might not deliver a lot more zap than a few bright lightbulbs. In future, an upgraded Laser Avenger might blind the optics of enemy robo-aircraft.

This, quite literally, isn't going to set the world on fire. There are many quicker and better ways to burn out or detonate improvised bombs or dud munitions already: for instance specialised anti-material rifles, infinitely more practical. As for blinding enemy drones, well. Not a lot of enemies have drones, and even if they did the US forces' dominance of the skies would make it difficult to use them. Also, if you can hold a laser on a drone long enough to burn out its optics, why not hold a much smaller laser on it to guide an existing portable missile in?

In the end, it's at least possible that laser weapons technology may develop in the nearish future to the point where you could put it on enormous planes or even more enormous warships and use it it for blasting deadly high-tech enemy missiles or whatnot. That's what the US air force and navy actually want it for, and that's the kind of business Boeing and Raytheon and their ilk would like to be in - nice high-added-value, low-volume, low-competition projects where you can make some serious money. Not a nasty free-for-all like the current armoured trucks purchasing frenzy, where any little jumped-up pissant company might get a share of the pork and you have to produce a lot of at-least-vaguely functional units in a hurry.

There is almost zero chance, though, that rayguns are coming soon which would be any serious use for ordinary soldiers fighting enemies equipped with ordinary weapons - rifles, roadside bombs, mortars and such. Boeing and Raytheon's efforts to suggest otherwise - so far - have not been at all convincing. Which means that rayguns may just have to wait, while money goes on things like protected vehicles, body armour, perhaps even - good god! - paying soldiers a bit more.

No matter what the would-be laser manufacturers of the future think about that.®

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