Imagine you're in the Air Force, working the flightline during a war with China when, suddenly, a Chinese J-20 is seen nearby. It's about to come rain death on your base and — most importantly — you. Luckily, the ground-based laser defenses zap it out of the sky before the dorm rats even get a chance to raid the Burger King.

The Air Force probably never saw its High-Energy Laser Flexible Prototype that way, but it's definitely how it could have played out. But we'll never know, because the lasers are gone for now.


Artist rendering of the High-Energy Laser Flexible Prototype in action.

The military isn't giving up on lasers entirely, despite the recent cancellations of laser weapons systems by both the Air Force and Army. The Pentagon just isn't sure where the focus of directed energy should be right now. The purpose of the original High-Energy Laser Flexible Prototype was to build a ground-based defense system, then scale it to individual aircraft defenses. The Air Force is no longer interested in that direction.

"We're trying to understand where we actually want to go," Michael Jirjis, who oversees the Air Force strategic development, planning, and experimentation office's directed-energy efforts, told Air Force magazine. "Internally to the Air Force, we'll hold another DE summit sometime later in the spring to understand senior leader investment and where they want to go for the community at large."

Firms like Lockheed-Martin are still developing laser defenses for tactical aircraft.

(Lockheed)

But developing lasers and microwave systems will continue, just not with the HEL, which would have been operational around March 2020 if everything went as planned. The scrapping of the program took little more than a month after requests for proposals were sent out.