The implements of warfighting have evolved through distinct epochs. The first and by far the longest involved edged weapons. Out from the deepest shadows of prehistory, the earliest edged weapons were stones or wooden clubs that were derived from tools used for daily tasks or hunting. Anything harder than human flesh and bone, and that killed or inflicted injury, was favored. And early humans soon discovered that sharper things killed and wounded more efficiently. Wielded by hand or thrown with force, all these weapons relied on human energy. The Bronze and Iron Ages led to conceptual refinements and truly purpose-built metal weapons that did far more damage. These included mechanical propulsion mechanisms that could throw devices with much more force than a person could. Edged weapons remained prevalent in combat until the 20th century, although their use was largely a holdover based on a nearly endless tradition.

The second era in weaponry involved the utilization of propellants. It began as early as the 11th century with the invention of gunpowder in Asia, but these propelled devices would not become common in the West until the late 16th century. With some sort of propulsion system being their common thread, propellant weapons range from firearms powered by gunpowder ignition (which creates tremendous pressure) to missiles powered by fuel-burning engines (which generate thrust). Such kinetic weapons are overwhelmingly favored today.

The last major weapon development is relatively new, tracing its seminal stages to the mid-20th century. After much experimentation, directed-energy weapons, most but not all of which are high-power lasers, are coming into their own today, in the 21st century. These remarkable devices harness energy sources and concentrate their power into a beam that, precisely aimed at an object, can penetrate and destroy materials and disrupt or disable operational systems over long ranges at the speed of light. “Death rays” have been the stuff of science fiction for years, but today directed energy weapons are solidly in the realm of reality. A case in point is the U.S. Navy’s newly deployed Laser Weapon System (LaWS). The Navy announced in early April 2013 that it will deploy its new system, developed by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Naval Sea Systems Command, two years ahead of schedule, expecting to begin combat operations in the Persian Gulf in fiscal year 2014…

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