Lasers, Death Rays and the Long Strange Quest for the Ultimate Weapon

By Jeff Hecht, published by Prometheus Books (available Jan. 8, 2019)

All of us encounter lasers in every aspect of our everyday lives. When we go to the grocery store, our purchases’ prices are scanned by a laser. Laser pointers are ubiquitous at APS meetings and lasers are widely used in construction and by the communications industry. However military applications are far more limited. We read about drones using lasers to target vehicles carrying enemy leaders, but they are still rare as battle field weapons except for designating targets for attack.

This book recounts efforts to develop lasers as defensive and offensive weapons both in space and on terrestrial battlefields, on the oceans and in the air. The author (B.S. Electrical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, 1969 and M.Ed. in Higher Education, UMass. Amherst 1971) is a longtime science writer who has authored a variety of science magazine articles and 13 books and published articles in Nature and IEEE Spectrum. He is a fellow of the Optical Society of America and a life senior member of the IEEE. He has followed attempts to develop lasers as weapons since the origins of the technology.

This book begins with a brief history of the "lightning bolt" weapons of ancient gods, Archimedes’ work, and Tesla’s efforts to construct an electric field beam weapon. The author details the story of the origins of the maser, and its development in 1954 into a laser. He states that lasers are clearly suggestive of the eventual development of death rays and reviews early efforts to this end including the fictional stories that incorporated laser weapons. He also recounts the ways in which the Pentagon almost invented the laser and begins a detailed history of military projects starting at the conclusion of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Most of the initial effort was focused on finding more powerful lasers since a beam weapon had to be powerful in order to damage armored targets such as battlefield missiles or war planes. With considerable effort, military and industrial scientists invented new types of lasers whose power could reach hundreds of kilowatts or even megawatts. Hecht tells this intriguing tale and profiles the men involved, many of whom he interviewed.

Once lasers of sufficient power were available, new problems gained center stage such as the defocusing of lasers by the atmosphere, the need for robust optical systems, and a way to decrease the size and mass of high power lasers so they could be deployed in either spacecraft or airplanes. The Strategic Defense Initiative announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 threw huge amounts of money and talent into the search for a useful laser defense against missiles. The program solved problem after problem as detailed in this book, but never managed to produce a working system that could be deployed.

By 1991, Reagan was out of office. The Soviet Union had collapsed and with it the need for space-based lasers for defense against nuclear-armed inter-continental missiles. Nevertheless, President H. W. Bush continued to support the Airborne Laser System as a way to destroy battlefield missiles. The system worked but hit a series of logistic problems, many of which were gradually solved. I found the story of General Ellen Pawlikowski, today the first female four-star general in the Air Force, who was named director of the Program Office of the Airborne Laser System at Kirkland Airforce Base in 2000, especially interesting because it was based on an interview conducted by Hecht and because Dr. Pawlikowski is a pioneering woman in laser technology.

In 1995, Israel and the U.S. began to collaborate on the development of laser-based defenses against missiles that could be deployed in ground vehicles on the battlefield. This was much easier than developing systems based in space or on airplanes, but it was hampered by many of the same problems. The rest of the book updates the reader on recent developments in types of lasers, including those powered by diesel fuel which might be used on the battlefield against conventional weapons. It finishes with a look at the future of the ultimate beam weapon.

This slim volume provides a remarkable description, including detailed quotations and profiles, of the men and women involved in the quest for laser weapons. It is also remarkable in providing detailed technical descriptions of the lasers and the systemic problems they encountered without resorting to a single equation. I recommend it to those with a background in physics who are not experts in lasers or optics as well as to non-physicists who are interested in the technologies used in weapons. Unfortunately the version of the book which I read was clearly a prepublication version containing several substantive goofs, for example stating that alkali metals have only one atom in their outer shells. My recommendation of this book is contingent on the publisher correcting these errors prior to publication.

Ruth H. Howes
Professor Emerita of Physics and Astronomy
Ball State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.