for applications important to national defense. These advances in laser technology have also enabled several significant system advances. One example is the area of optical aperture synthesis, which rapidly went from the laboratory to flight system demonstrations within several years during the period since Harnessing Light appeared.

While the advances described above have enabled new capabilities for the United States, they have also narrowed the technology gap for adversaries. Importantly, the proliferation of low-cost, high-powered lasers has provided inexpensive countermeasures for adversaries. One example is the use of high-powered handheld laser pointers as laser dazzlers against helicopter pilots, causing a bedazzled pilot to become temporarily blinded or disoriented. The low cost and abundance of these devices put them in anyone’s reach.

Changes Since the Harnessing Light Study

This section briefly discusses the changes in each of the areas that were addressed in Chapter 4, “Optics in National Defense” in the NRC’s 1998 report Harnessing Light. For a more detailed discussion of these topics, see Appendix C in this report. The most significant changes have been due to the advances made in optical components that have enabled new sensors to be developed and demonstrated (see the section below entitled “Identification of Technological Opportunities from Recent Advances”). The following subsections provide an update for the areas of surveillance, night vision, laser systems operating in the atmosphere and in space, fiber-optic systems, and special techniques (e.g., chemical and biological species detection, laser gyros, and optical signal processing).


Surveillance still plays a critical role in detecting and assessing hostile threats to the United States. The progress in optical sensors over the past decade has created an exponential growth in ISR data from both passive and active sensors, including an increase in area coverage rate and an increase in sensor capabilities and performance. As the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) chief Regina Dugan puts it, “We are swimming in sensors and drowning in data.”5 Materials advances have made collection at new wavelengths feasible, and improved components provide new data signatures, including vibrometry, polarimetry, hyper-spectral signatures, and three-dimensional data that mitigate camouflage for targets of interest.


5 Comment can be found in Norris, P. 2010. Watching Earth from Space: How Surveillance Helps Us—and Harms Us. Chichester, U.K.: Praxis Publishing.

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