Why the U.S. military is so hot on laser weapons

Laser weapons are invisible, operating at an optical wavelength the human eye cannot discern. They are also silent and unlike bullets and shells, do not produce miniature sonic booms. Unlike conventional weapons, which utilize a controlled explosion to generate energy, lasers have no recoil.

Lasers are also affordable. A single Griffin short-range missile costs at least $115,000. A shot from a laser costs usually costs less than a dollar, the price of the energy used. The actual laser system is more expensive — the laser on the USS Ponce cost $40 million, including six years of research and development — but expect the price tag to fall as they become more common.

These futuristic weapons do have their drawbacks. They are complicated, delicate systems that generate a tremendous amount of heat and need to cool between shots. The farther a laser travels through the air the weaker it becomes. Particles in the air such as dust, water droplets, sand, or snow can scatter the laser beam, quickly reducing its power.

There are few ethical problems with laser weapons. Lasers appear to be just as humane — or inhumane, depending on how you look at it — as any other weapon. Where users like the U.S. military might run into trouble is if a laser is mounted on a drone, but in that case, like other drone-mounted weapons, it’s the ethics of drone warfare up for debate and not the weapon mounted on it.