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Laser guns: their time hasn't come

Modern space epics would be dull without laser weapons. But EArth's "real life" military will have to wait awhile to get them. Experimental lasers have destroyed aircraft and missiles in tests. This indicates that "laser technology is approachbing the maturity required for prototype weapon development," notes the report of a laser weapons study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The report adds, however, that actual use of laser weapons is still in the indefinite future.

This does not mean that these futuristic weapons should be ignored today. Even though the more obvious uses such as antisatellite or antiballistic missile weapons are some time away, they "merit early and careful attention," because they bear directly on the strategic effectiveness of the nuclear weapons deterrent, the MIT study notes. In fact, since research on such weapons might be perceived as upsetting the strategic balance, the study recommends that it be limited to countermeasures against laser weapons.

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Thus, while the era of Buck Rogers warfare is not yet upon us, it is time to begin taking it seriously in long-term planning. The $200 million-a-year United States laser weapon research efort, and similar programs in other countries, can be expected eventually to bear fruit.

At this time, it is a little hard to foresee exactly what that fruit might be. Lasers can deliver what the report calls "lethal amounts of energy" on targets and get it there at the speed of light. They can do this within the atmosphere as well as in space. However, weather is still a limiting factor, for lasers cannot yet work effectively through cloud or heavy fog.

In summarizing their report of the MIT study, authors M. Callahan and K. Tsipis point out that lasers working within the atmosphere would have to be carefully positioned and have plenty of warning to be effective. Such weapons might be useful to an attacker who could pick the time and place of use. But they would have questionable benefit for defenders.

Because of this, they advise taking the optimistic claims of laser weapon promoters with a grain of salt. "The motives of those who advocate weather . . . dependent weapons systems should be questioned," they say.

There likewise are substantial questions about the effectiveness of antimissile lasers in space. Salvos of missiles could saturate such a lase system, while enemy countermeasures to nullify it would be relatively easy, the report concludes. Thus, the authors say, they are unconvinced that an effective space-based antimissile laser system is "within the visible technological horizon."

This hardheaded assessment provides a useful antidote to some of the enthusiastic reports of laser weapon development that make it seem imminent. At the same time, and as the MIT study emphasizes, the long-term potential of such weapons must not be ignored.

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