Science fiction often anticipates real-world technology.
And a classic sci-fi technology — the force field — is about to break into the 21st century, according to a recent announcement in an Air Force Research Lab report.
In other words, we've reached the "tipping point" of advanced future weapons.
An umbrella-like force field is 'on the horizon'
This announcement came amid several other updates on the future of directed energy weapons, and how the military-industrial complex might effectively develop and deploy them in the near future. A force field capable of deflecting missile attacks is years if not decades ahead in technological development, but the AFRL report also said this moment represents a "tipping point" of practicality. In a recent press release reported via The Drive, the entity said "the concept of a [directed energy] weapon creating a localized force field may be just on the horizon." But the reality of force fields the AFRL imagines looks less like the shields from a "Star Trek" series than it does the orbital laser platform from the anime film "Akira."
Instead, the Air Force report describes an umbrella-like field generated by several different directed energy weapons. At first, they will be mounted on vehicles, but the plan is to lift them to space, from where they'll fire a laser to strike down missiles within a specific radius of defense. "By 2060 a sufficiently large fleet or constellation of high-altitude [directed energy weapons] systems could provide a missile defense umbrella, as part of a layered defense system, if such concepts prove affordable and necessary," said the report. "By 2060 we can predict that [directed energy] systems will become more effective, and this idea of a force field includes methods to destroy other threats too," said Jeremy Murray-Krezan, AFRL Directed Energy Deputy Chief Scientist, in the release.
The world's 'most powerful' laser
"Eventually there may be potential to achieve the penultimate goal of a Nuclear or ballistic missile umbrella. It's fun to think about what that might be in 2060, but we don't want to speculate too much," added Murray-Krezan. Understandably, it's hard to come by specs and power ratings for the technology behind weapons set 40 years in the future, but there are other energy-directed weapons currently under development. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army announced it was developing the world's "most powerful" laser strong enough to vaporize all targets, in addition to interfering with signals from enemy devices, using pulses and signals. Called the Tactical Ultrashort Pulsed Laser for Army Platforms, the directed energy weapon is estimated to be one million times the power of any previous laser platform, according to an initial New Scientist report.
The new system from the U.S. Army will achieve a terawatt for a brief but potent 200 femtoseconds (which is one-quadrillionth of one second). This might seem unimaginably short, but in this timeframe, the UPSL could easily vaporize a drone. Once fired, the weapon will also temporarily disrupt nearby electronic systems, doubling as a functional electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device. We may be decades away from bringing some of the devices long-adored in sci-fi staples like "Star Wars" and other franchises, but we're getting closer every year.