As Russian propaganda blows up the internet with the unveiling of a new laser weapon, this is just a friendly reminder of a couple things. First, Russia lies about new tech all the time. Second, it hasn't shown the weapon fire. And, most importantly, this weapon was originally announced in a press conference filled with other over-hyped weapons.
Russia originally released footage of its Peresvet Combat Leaser System a few months ago, and it actually showed the weapon in more detail than what came out in December. Neither video actually shows the weapon in action.
(YouTube/Russian Ministry of Defence)
That's not to say that the Russians can't build a functioning laser weapon or that America shouldn't be prepared for its enemies to deploy lasers, but it is to say that we should take our time while pricing mirrored caps for our bomb shelters (save money by cutting old disco balls in half!).
The laser in question, if you haven't seen it, is the Peresvet Combat Laser System. It was first announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a March annual address to the Russia's Federal Assembly where he also discussed new nuclear missiles, including a nuclear-powered missile that he claimed was ready put in the field. It later came out that the missile has never had a successful test and crashed at sea, forcing Russia to try and find it.
Russia actually also claimed another laser weapon at the same time, a plane-mounted, anti-satellite laser. The Peresvet is, almost certainly, not the same weapon. This thing would not fit on a high-flying fighter jet.
Peresvet has been teased one time since the annual address but is now receiving a lot of publicity as Sputnik, a Russian propaganda outlet, has released a new video of the laser "in service."
Except, as everyone buzzes about the laser, we all seem to forget that the video is only showing the foreskin of a tent being pulled back to reveal a shiny laser head as a Russian with no face takes a firm grasp of the stick. That is literally as sexily as I can possibly describe this actually very boring video.
Is this a new laser weapon? Probably, but it could just as easily be the trailer for a professional gamer who only uses Apple keyboards and discount joysticks while playing his flight sims on the road.
Assuming it is a weapon, could it tip the balance in a ground war with the U.S. as it shoots down incoming missiles, drones, jets, and helicopters by the thousands? Again, sure. Anything is possible. But lasers are actually super hard to make work as weapons, and they require a ton of energy per each shot.
A U.S. Air Force C-130 flies with an experimental laser in 2009. The laser was later canceled because it couldn't engage enemy missiles at a significant range.
(U.S. Air Force)
They require somuch energythat America's first few laser prototypes barely used electricity because the battery and power-generation requirements were technically infeasible. Instead, we filled a C-130 with vats of chemicals that could, yes, create a laser of sufficient strength to down a missile, but not at ranges sufficient to work in a real-world scenario.
With advances in electronics, it is now possible to create lasers powered by electricity that have sufficient strength to bring down objects in the sky or destroy targets on the ground. How can I be so sure? Well, the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Army prototypes have all been publicly demonstrated and fired.
A target at sea is destroyed by the prototype laser mounted on the Navy's USS Ponce during a 2015 test. Note that the fireball comes from explosives in the target, not the energy from the laser.
(U.S. Navy video screenshot)
They've even been demonstrated working on actual combat platforms like the Army Stryker and the Navy's amphibious transport dock, USS Ponce. The Air Force demonstrated the aforementioned chemical laser on a C-130 years ago and currently has a contract with Lockheed for high-energy lasers for fighter jets, a weapon it wants combat ready by 2021.
So yeah, there's no reason to think that Russia can't develop a similar weapon. And warfighters, especially drone operators, should begin training to operate in environments where Russian lasers can shoot them down (but only when using massive trailers). But America still, obviously, has the edge in laser technology. And we don't need to panic because Russian propaganda has made an impressive claim.
Remember, Russian leaders also claimed that the Su-57 and T-14 Armata were game-changing weapons that they could build relatively cheaply and would tip the worldwide balance of power. Spoiler: Both weapons are too expensive for Russia to afford and neither appears to work as well as advertised.