U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a proposal for sweeping changes to U.S. military spending, including cancelation of the second airborne laser, and moving the existing program to an R&D effort. What does this mean for the laser industry?
The short answer is that it is way too soon to tell. The high-profile airborne laser program has been a dream for decades, but it has been too ambitious for its own good. In December 2007, a U.S. Defense Science Advisory Board task force recommended that military agencies look for smaller, more practical applications for laser weapon projects, rather than for giant, megawatt-class applications that take a longer time to prove in. This favors solid-state and fiber lasers for tactical operations over chemical lasers and other exotic technologies.
There are dozens of military programs that involve lasers, even high-power lasers. Some are futuristic, like the airborne laser, and some have been in use for years, such as rangefinders.
Moreover, Gate's dramatic changes to the budget have to be approved by Congress, and that won't be easy. Members will fight hard to save jobs in their home districts.
By the way, it's interesting to see the trend in U.S. military spending. The figure shows spending by fiscal year, including supplemental funding. Military spending by the U.S. and other countries is likely near a peak, with tighter spending as early as this year.
Figure source: U.S. Congressional Research Service and Defense News research, as reported in Defense News, October 13, 2008.