To many it will certainly come as a surprise to learn that the US military has been targeting lasers at aircraft since 1973 through it DARPA initiative Project Delta.
The laser just begs to be weaponized
If you’ve seen any of the Star Wars movies or numerous other films that feature weaponized lasers, it’s difficult to not find them at least a little bit cool. And since the discovery of the laser, the United States military has looked to add that “cool” to their arsenal. The first offensive laser was fired by the Project Delta over 42 years ago in November of 1973 at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Unfortunately, I can’t embed a video of this milestone as it’s never been made public but was shown to private contractors and the United States Congress a few years after the test.
In the two decades between 1960 and 1980, the United States spent nearly two and a half billion dollars in trying to weaponize the invention of Nobel-winning physicist Charles Townes and his co-inventors. Hell, why wouldn’t you when the inventor of something so “out there” told the Air Force that lasers would change the face of modern warfare as early as 1961.
“Fundamentally, there is no limit to the power which can be obtained by the optical maser,” Townes bragged. Townes was no stranger to the military given his work at ARPA (now DARPA) and one of those responsible for the production of the maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
Before you get too down on Townes for turning the maser into today’s laser, he had plenty of help. The bulk of this help came from fellow ARPA scientist and friend of the military Gordon Gould and Hughes Labs’ Ted Maiman who orchestrated an independent collaboration.
In 1960, Maiman constructed the first practical laser but it was Townes who trumpeted its potential applications to the military along with leading the rogue group of academics who tackled ARPA’s more difficult and secretive projects. Townes, would later gain some fame in military circles for his christening of the modern electric battlefield.
The laser race ensues
Project Seaside and Project Defender were two ARPA projects task to using lasers to bring down Soviet missiles. President Kennedy shoved Project Defender into the “highest national priority category” following the near nuclear war that came from the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963.
“Although PROJECT DEFENDER would not solve the Cuban missile crisis,” wrote Robert Duffner in his book Airborne Laser: Bullets of Light, “Kennedy’s decision placed increased emphasis on laser research and made funds more readily available in hopes of developing lasers as ABM weapons to be better prepared for future confrontations.”
Using the work of PROJECT DEFENDER, ARPA created a new project called Eight Card which would later become Project Delta. The naming of the project referred to the use of a laser in a game of seven-card stud poker. (Even if your opponent catches a royal flush, you still have a laser?)
While the goal of Eight Card was to build an airborne laser, who have to walk before you run and a ground laser was built in New Mexico.
First successful laser uses on aircraft
With said laser constructed, it was just a matter of getting a Northrop MQM-33B drone in front of it in middle of November, 1973.
Duffner described the meeting in aforementioned book:
Shortly after noon on 13 November, the beam hit the aluminum fuselage aft of the fuel tank. The beam remained on the drone long enough to burn through the skin, causing the drone to lose control and make one last diving left turn before crashing into the desert floor. Inspection of the debris revealed the beam had burned and shorted out the internal electrical control cabling, forcing the drone into a rolling pitch-down maneuver. Although the experiment disabled the drone, it suffered only minor damage.
Following the “lasing” the drone deployed a parachute so a more accurate account of the damage inflicted, rather than quick return to Earth (ground), by the laser.
The US Army had some fun of its own in 1976 when it used an AVCO discharge laser to shoot down both a fixed-wing and a helicopter drone at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama. The US Navy’s first successful use of a laser on a TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) antitank missile in the same year.
These early successes formed the backbone of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” in the 1980s. Dr. William J. Perry, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, effectively lied to the Senate in 1979 when looking for $200 million in funding suggesting that the Soviet laser plans for space “may be three to five times the scope of our own.” It was later learned that the Soviets were well behind the States.
Recent use of the laser in battle
The Vietnam war saw lasers guiding bombs to their targets but that was still considered a “passive” rather than offensive laser.
The United States military remains fairly cagey about its use of lasers in both Afghanistan and Iraq but has admitted to their use, primarily the ZEUS laser system that is affixed to a humvee and charged with the safe detonation of IUDs and roadside bombs from distances of nearly 300 meters.
While each branch of the military certainly has other offensive lasers at their disposal the simple fact is that they are just not going to to tell us about them. What is known is that they’ve been working on them for nearly a half a century.