US Army doubles down on laser tag with $95M for prototyping

Recently confirming first use of energy weapons in the field, military now wants bigger, better systems

It hasn't been using them for long, but the US Army is apparently pleased enough with its early directed energy (i.e. laser) weapons systems that it's investing another $95.4 million in improved versions.

BlueHalo, makers of the LOCUST counter-drone laser system, announced its R&D bankrolling by the Army Space and Missile Defense Command yesterday. The company said it would use the funds, awarded as part of the Laser technology Research Development and Optimization (LARDO) program, to improve size, weight, and power of its laser weapons. 

Current LOCUST systems are outfitted with AI able to track, identify, and engage targets with a laser that BlueHalo describes as a "hard-kill" high-energy laser.

Hard-kill systems, in military jargon, are those that destroy enemy weapons, craft, and personnel, as opposed to soft kills, which disable the aforementioned. The advantage to using laser weapons for hard kills over kinetic weapons is that drones or vehicles can be disabled with far less noise, destruction, and potential for collateral damage.

In order to kill airborne enemies – particularly drones, LOCUST's primary purpose – LOCUST can output a beam with as much as 20 kW of output power.

All that power means LOCUST is relatively stationary. It can be dropped in place and used modularly, as the unit is self-contained, but doesn't appear to be usable on the move. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has demoed its own 50 kW DEIMOS system that is designed for mounting on a Stryker combat vehicle.

In other words, BlueHalo will need those funds if it intends to put more bang behind its pew-pew. These systems, however, have already been reportedly proven in combat.

The Army has fielded LOCUST units in the Middle East since 2022, where it's been using them to take down drones, missiles, and mortar shells. According to Forbes earlier this month, LOCUST is able to melt sensitive drone parts in seconds, destroying them; the report marks the first time the US military has confirmed its use of laser weapons in the field.

And it's not like we haven't been dreaming of laser weapons for decades. According to the DoD, its research into the weaponization of lasers has been ongoing since the technology was invented in 1960. Multiple efforts over the years have failed to get a true directed energy weapon out of the laboratory stage, but here we are: Actually in the laser warfare age. 

It's unknown what sort of future laser weapons will come out of BlueHalo's research grant. It hopes to improve automation, efficiency, and performance as well as make the units more rugged, but whether we can expect to be carrying around something as small as a laser rifle anytime soon is far less clear.

Of course we asked. We just haven't heard back yet. ®

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