Sorry, I know it's adolescent, but it wasn't Star Wars, it was this scene from Austin Powers I couldn't stop thinking about while I read this article in USA Today:
Are we finally witnessing the dawn of the "death ray"?
Five decades after the creation of the laser, the ubiquitous technology of the modern era may be ready to serve up that Star Wars science-fiction staple: the laser blaster. Advances in the technology have made it possible for military testers to shoot down incoming mortar rounds with land-based lasers, and military commanders are on the verge of being able to fire laser blasts from the air that could be aimed at tanks or mines.
"We literally are the invisible death ray, let me tell you," says Mike Rinn of Boeing's Airborne Laser Program in Seattle, a missile- defense effort, one among dozens of Defense Department-supported "directed energy" programs run by military contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.
"This beam is invisible to the naked eye; you can't see it."[..]
Lasers increasingly are being used by the military, says Sharon Weinberger, author of Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld. Gun sights use lasers, targets are "painted" with lasers to help guide bombs dropped from aircraft, and secure lines of communication rely on the technology.
"That's where lasers are really making a difference," she says. "We just take it for granted now."
One of the main obstacles to developing lasers as weapons has been generating enough power for the kinds of laser blasts that battlefield planners have envisioned. But designers recently passed the 100-kilowatt (100,000 watts) benchmark (enough energy to power about six U.S. homes for a month), which was seen as a key milestone for their development. Engineers have improved lens coatings, laser cooling and miniaturized electronics to keep a bigger laser punch from burning up weapons in mid-operation.
So years of research finally have produced lasers that could be effective on the battlefield, with one possible exception — ballistic missile defense — the area of defense in which the notion of using lasers has attracted the most publicity.
Cost is one reason. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year canceled plans to buy a laser-equipped 747, saving taxpayers $214 million this year. The program was eight years behind schedule and $4 billion over cost. Gates also questioned the practicality of a laser that needed to be within about 80 miles of a missile to knock it down, meaning it would have to fly over hostile anti-aircraft defenses — probably a suicide mission. "It's one thing to get a laser working aboard something as big as a 747. It's another to field something that makes sense as a weapon," says former Air Force chief scientist Mark Lewis, now at the University of Maryland.[..]
This year, the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency announced that a 100-kilowatt laser aboard the research 747 had shot down Scud missiles in two tests, the first since a weaker laser knocked down smaller Sidewinder missiles in the 1980s. But Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, who called the demonstration "a magnificent technical achievement," said the type of chemical lasers used for the system were too heavy and unreliable for wartime use. Electronic solid-state lasers, an approach pursued by the U.S. Navy, seem more practical, because of their smaller size, power needs, easier cooling and insensitivity to vibrations.[..]
Says Imaginary Weapons author Weinberger: "In the military world, one real question is: Why do we need them? What can lasers do that we can't do with bullets and missiles? Given their costs and the fact that they weigh too much and are unreliable, I don't see them as too useful."
This has been another episode of military boys and their outrageously expensive toys. Did you catch the part where scientists have only recently surpassed the 100KW threshold for lasers, which is enough to power six homes for a month? Well then, why the hell aren't we looking into doing this???
Do we really need yet another expensive weapons program that looks like it's being pursued only because it appeals to the science fiction geeks in the Pentagon over alternative forms of energy?