Freaking laser beams. They're currently the holy grail of weapons technology, whether they be hand-held weapons used by infantry, ship- or vehicle-mounted cannons, or air-to-air weapons. And it's that last category that interests us today.
US Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle dropped some tantalizing details about the near-future application of air-based lasers at the Air Force Association Air and Space conference, saying the USAF will have "a directed energy pod we can put on a fighter plane very soon."
"That day is a lot closer than I think a lot of people think it is," Carlisle said, according to Ars Technica.
Rather than fixed cannons, like you'd get on an X-Wing from the Star Wars universe, the Air Force's lasers would likely come in the form of wing-mounted pods. They'd be perfect for drones and missiles, and could even manage larger aerial targets, like other fighters. The appeal, aside from the simple awesomness of lasers, is that the "cost per shot," as Carlisle calls it, would be significantly lower than today's air-to-air missiles, like the new AIM-120D AMRAAM. According to a Department of Defense Program Acquisition Report from March 2014 (PDF warning), the latest AMRAAM costs taxpayers around $1.8 million per pop.
Based on current laser developments, with DARPA and General Atomics' HELLADS – a 150-plus-kilowatt laser, Ars reports – it's plausible that laser-equipped fighters could be protecting America's skies by 2020.