Laser weapons, which are still largely under development, are too large to fit in tanks and kill other tanks. But lasers could be used to fry or destabilize flying objects, which is why the U.S. Army is pushing to introduce laser weapons into the field of air defense.
Air defense has fallen by the wayside as a priority for the Army. That’s because the real air defense provided to ground troops comes via the U.S. Air Force, and thanks to the bubble of protection provided by U.S. fighter jets, no U.S. ground troops have been killed by enemy aircraft since 1953. The Army maintains Patriot missile batteries for long-range air defense and shoulder-fired Stinger missiles for local defense, but proportionately fewer than the armies of other countries. And it doesn’t field vehicle-mounted and medium-range air defense systems at all.
According to Breaking Defense, the Army poured more than 50 percent of its science and technology budget into directed energy weapons—lasers. At the same time, the service is set to buy two battalions’ worth of air defense vehicles for its Stryker brigade combat teams. Early versions of the Maneuver Short Range Air Defense Systems (MSHORADS) will use guns and missiles to shoot down fixed wing aircraft, helicopters, and drones, but the Army expects to field laser air defenses starting in 2023
Laser weapons have come along way in the past decade, but are hobbled by the need to generate large amounts of power, which requires carrying a lot of weight. Everyone wants laser-powered tanks, but the energy needed to burn through enemy armor in the blink of an eye is still impractical on the battlefield. But flying objects such as drones, helicopters, and planes are typically unarmored. A foe need only cause a little bit of damage to induce structural or electronic failure. Gravity does the rest.
The Army wants a 50-kilowatt weapon by 2023. That’s enough power to quickly shoot down a drone. The Army is preparing for the day when a swarm of drones might converge on its soldiers, who’ll need an air defense system that can rapidly engage multiple targets in a short amount of time. Laser air defenses would also protect friendly forces from cruise missiles like the Russian Kalibr, recently seen in action in Syria. Lasers might be the only weapon capable of stopping fast-moving howitzer and mortar shells from raining down on U.S. troops.