Laser weapons: Fighting war at the speed of light

Silent, invisible, and devastatingly precise—laser weapons are set to redefine modern warfare. Are we ready for a future where conflicts are decided at the speed of light?
  • Executive summary
  • Introduction: War. What is it good for?
  • Explainer: Coming soon to a battlefield near you
  • Examples: Fire in the sky
  • Experts: A better match to new threats
  • Predictions: A new global arms race
  • Learnings

Executive summary:

Laser weapons are a common trope of science fiction novels, movies, and video games, but practical military applications of lasers have remained elusive. However, recent advances in materials science, optics, and computing have finally made weapons that shoot concentrated beams of energy at the speed of light a realistic possibility, prompting a new global arms race.

  • The Pentagon is investing US$1 billion per year in laser weapons.
  • The US Army has already deployed several laser weapons in combat zones, including P-HEL, DE M-SHORAD, and HELIOS.
  • Non-US countries working on laser weapons include the UK, Israel, Russia, China, France, India, and Turkey.
  • “Directed energy shows great promise for the future,” says Laura DeSimone, executive director of the Missile Defense Agency.
  • “In very controlled conditions, they seem to perform as they should. The issue, though, is how do you translate that to the front line in Ukraine?” asks defence analyst Thomas Withington.

The rapid development of laser weapons is likely to have significant implications for future conflicts and global security. While these weapons offer some notable advantages over conventional weapons, they also face numerous technical hurdles, such as weather susceptibility and power requirements. What does this mean for the adoption of laser weapons? Are they the weapons of the future—or just another pipe dream?

Introduction: War. What is it good for?

Humanity’s propensity for warfare has been a constant thread throughout our history. The only thing that has changed over that time is the weapons we use to fight with one another, gradually evolving from rudimentary tools like sticks and stones to more sophisticated implements like swords and bows. The invention of gunpowder marked a significant leap forward, facilitating the development of increasingly powerful firearms, bombs, and missiles. This trend towards ever-more destructive weaponry culminated in the Manhattan Project, and the invention of nuclear bombs capable of levelling an entire city.

Each advancement has not only changed the face of warfare but also had profound societal and geopolitical implications. The same is likely to be true for the next chapter in this ongoing arms race: laser weapons. Long confined to the realm of science fiction, laser weapons are finally inching closer to reality thanks to technological advances that have allowed them to transition from the pages of novels to military testing grounds. So, join us as we take a closer look at the current state of laser weapons and explore their potential impact on the future of warfare.

Explainer: Coming soon to a battlefield near you

Despite some early setbacks, recent technological advances have finally made laser weapons feasible.

Ever since the laser was first invented back in 1960, military leaders around the world have been trying to find military applications for the technology. These efforts manifested in several highly ambitious projects, the most notable of which was the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s. Often derisively referred to as the ‘Star Wars programme’, the project aimed to develop space-based laser weapons that could take out Soviet ballistic missiles before they reached US soil. After ten years of development and some US$30 billion in spending, the project was officially shut down in 1993 without delivering on its promise. It was followed by another high-profile failure, the US$5 billion Airborne Laser programme, which was abandoned in 2012.

It has only been in recent years that advances in the fields of materials science, optics, and computer technology have made ‘directed energy weapons’—a monicker for laser weaponry—feasible. Today, there are 31 laser weapons programmes in various stages of development at the Pentagon alone, with a combined annual budget of US$1 billion. This renewed focus was motivated, in part, by increasing drone and missile attacks on US soldiers in Iraq, Syria, and the Red Sea. According to the Pentagon, drone and missile attacks have resulted in a total of 186 casualties among US troops across the Middle East between October 2023 and February 2024, prompting renewed calls for the development of weapons capable of neutralising such threats.

But how exactly does a laser weapon function? Essentially, a laser works by converting electricity into a stream of light particles called photons. Once these photons pass through a beam director, they are narrowed into a steady beam that causes intense heat in the targeted area. With sufficient power, a laser can burn through various materials, including metal. In theory, laser weapons offer numerous advantages over conventional weapons: they never run out of ammo, can reach their target almost instantly since photons travel at the speed of light, and are virtually silent. Additionally, with an average cost of US$1-10 per shot, laser weapons represent a significantly cheaper alternative to missiles, which can cost millions apiece.

Putting them to use has, however, proven challenging. The biggest limitation of laser weapons is that they are susceptible to weather conditions. Rain, sand, dust, smoke, and even air turbulence can all defocus a laser beam, reducing its precision. Another issue is that laser weapons are incredibly power-hungry, requiring tens or hundreds of kilowatts (kW) of power to engage targets at safe distances. This means that any military platform a laser weapon is installed on requires not only extensive power generation capabilities but also a robust cooling infrastructure to manage the tremendous amount of waste heat generated. Furthermore, laser weapons often require specialised tools, materials, and facilities for repairs, which may not be readily available on the battlefield.

Examples: Fire in the sky

Militaries around the world are working on developing laser weapons, with some already demonstrating their effectiveness in combat.

The United States has led the way with the development of laser weapons, some of which have already been deployed in the field. One example is the Palletized High-Energy Laser (P-HEL), which was delivered to US troops in the Middle East earlier this year. This weapon has already demonstrated its effectiveness by successfully taking out several incoming enemy drones, marking the first-ever use of laser weapons in combat. Operated with an Xbox gaming controller, P-HEL uses a 20 kW laser beam to melt the drone’s wings or motors and shoot it out of the sky. The US Army has also deployed four Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD) prototypes, which feature a 50 kW laser mounted onto a Stryker armoured troop carrier, to Iraq for real-world testing.

In the near future, the US Army could get its hands on its most powerful laser weapon yet: the 300 kW Valkyrie. Developed by Lockheed Martin, Valkyrie will be able to engage a wider range of threats than previous generations of laser weaponry. Its unprecedented power could even render it capable of neutralising cruise missiles. Of course, it’s not just land troops who are in need of protection. The US Navy has also integrated laser weapons into several warships, including the USS Preble, which was equipped in 2022 with a High-Energy Laser with Integrated Optical Dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS). This multi-purpose system is capable of destroying drones and smaller boats, as well as disrupting optical sensors on enemy warships and aircraft.

Several other countries are also currently working on their own laser weapons projects, including the UK, Israel, Russia, China, France, India, and Turkey. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), a research lab funded by the UK Ministry of Defence, revealed in late 2022 that it had conducted a series of live-fire tests of its new high-energy laser weapon named DragonFire. The 50 kW weapon system was tasked with targeting a small drone and various metal targets designed to mimic the characteristics of ship and aircraft hulls at a distance of up to 3.4 kilometres. According to DSTL officials, DragonFire passed the test with flying colours—even in rainy conditions.

Similarly, Israeli defence technology company Rafael announced in March 2022 that it had successfully completed the latest batch of live-fire tests of Iron Beam, its new 100 kW laser weapon. Once it’s ready for field deployment, which the company hopes could happen in as little as two years, Iron Beam will be integrated into the Iron Dome, which was also developed by Rafael. This will add a more economically efficient weapon to the Iron Dome’s arsenal of kinetic interceptors, allowing it to choose the most suitable option based on the type of incoming threat and current weather conditions.

“High-energy laser systems are a better match to the threats we now face versus the threats 10 or 20 years ago.”

Iain McKinnie, director for science and technology at Raytheon

Experts: A better match to new threats

Industry experts largely agree that laser weapons show great promise, but technical challenges and limitations could prevent wider adoption.

Many defence experts are excited about the possibility of laser weapons. “Directed energy shows great promise for the future,” proclaims Laura DeSimone, executive director of the Missile Defense Agency. “I mean, there are so many advantages of having a potential directed-energy engagement system—give the warfighter additional engagement opportunities, save interceptors, and lower cost per engagement. So, lots of great potential for directed energy.” Her enthusiasm is shared by Ben Maddison from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), a UK-based research lab. “We’re really confident that most direct energy weapons are going to be really effective on the battlefield and we’ll be able to defeat a wide range of threats in order to make them militarily useful,” he says.

As cheap weaponised drones become more widely employed in conflicts around the world, laser weapons may soon become a necessity to counter this emerging threat. “High-energy laser systems are a better match to the threats we now face versus the threats 10 or 20 years ago,” explains Iain McKinnie, director of science and technology at defence contractor Raytheon. Many believe it’s only a matter of time before they are deployed on battlefields across the globe. “We don’t have a technology problem or a scientific problem anymore… it’s now an engineering problem. The science is there, we’ve shown that it works,” says Michael Lurie, chief executive of defence technology company Rafael USA. “It’s not a question of if we will do it. It’s a question of when, and how long it will take.”

However, there are still a range of technical challenges that need to be overcome before we get there. “In very controlled conditions, they seem to perform as they should. The issue, though, is how do you translate that to the front line in Ukraine?” asks Thomas Withington, an analyst and author specialising in electronic warfare and military communications. Military leaders themselves acknowledge that the technology in its current form still has certain limitations. “Our high-energy lasers are so susceptible to weather,” bemoans General James Mingus, the US Army’s vice chief of staff. “Anytime there’s a dust storm, anytime there’s that kind of thing, it starts to alter the physics of the light particles that actually shoot that beam.”

The sheer complexity of the weapons is another compounding factor. “Lasers are complicated. This is not a Humvee that’s sitting in the motor pool,” says Lieutenant General Daniel Karbler, the head of US Army Space and Missile Defense Command. “Many of the some of the main [laser] components… you’re not going to have a supply room or maintenance office full of repair parts. Those are […] going to have to be built out.” However, the technical challenges don’t end there. “That power level is proving challenging to incorporate into a vehicle that has to move around constantly—the heat dissipation, the amount of electronics, kind of the wear and tear of a vehicle in a tactical environment versus a fixed site,” explains Doug Bush, the Army’s head of acquisitions.

Predictions: A new global arms race

The development of increasingly powerful laser weapons may ignite a new global arms race with profound implications for international security and stability.

As laser weapons continue to evolve, they are likely to take on a more prominent role in the future of warfare. While they likely cannot replace conventional weapons in all situations, lasers are expected to become increasingly powerful, potentially exceeding 1 megawatt of power within the next couple of decades, which could enable them to engage a wider variety of targets. The integration of laser weapons into existing military arsenals may even spur the creation of new types of hybrid weapons that combine the best traits of lasers, missiles, and traditional guns while mitigating their weaknesses, expanding the range of tactical options available to military commanders.

The ongoing development of laser weapons could potentially trigger a new global arms race that could have far-reaching implications for international security and stability, as countries strive to give themselves a tactical advantage over their adversaries. This competition for global supremacy may very well extend beyond the confines of the Earth’s atmosphere, with countries like Russia and China already reportedly investing in counterspace weapons, including powerful lasers capable of disrupting vital military satellites. Does this mean that the next world war—if and when it does happen—will be partly fought in space?


The advent of laser weapons marks a significant milestone in the evolution of warfare, one that could fundamentally reshape the global security landscape in the years to come. While they are a far cry from the laser weapons portrayed in science fiction movies and video games, they offer numerous advantages over conventional weapons like guns and missiles.

  • Laser weapons have near-infinite magazines, can reach their targets at the speed of light, and are virtually silent.
  • At US$1-10 per shot, lasers offer a much cheaper alternative to missiles, which can cost millions apiece.
  • Some laser weapons have already demonstrated combat readiness, successfully shooting down enemy drones.
  • Major drawbacks of laser weapons include susceptibility to atmospheric conditions, power and cooling requirements, and challenging maintenance.
  • The development of laser weapons threatens to trigger a new global arms race, which could have profound implications for international security and stability.

However, this also raises some profound questions about the nature of conflict in the 21st century and beyond. Will these silent, invisible beams of light usher in a new age of more ‘humane’ warfare, with reduced collateral damage and fewer civilian casualties? Or will they just add fuel to the fire in an already volatile global landscape?

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