In national defense, optical technology has become ubiquitous, from low-cost components to complex and expensive systems, and has dramatically changed the way wars are fought. Sophisticated satellite surveillance systems are a keystone of intelligence gathering. Night vision imagers and missile guidance units allow the U.S. armed forces to "own the night." Lasers are used for everything from targeting and range finding to navigation, and may lead to high-power directed-energy weapons. The Department of Defense has a significant stake in optics.
As the impact of optics has increased, changes have become necessary in how optical components and systems are designed and made. The manufacture of mass-market optics is now dominated by companies in Asia, but some recent developments are enabling U.S. industry to recapture selected market segments. One example is the emergence of new classes of numerically controlled optical grinding and polishing machines. Another is a better understanding of the characteristics of optical materials, from glasses to polymers to metals, thus permitting broader use of these automated technologies. Advanced optical components cannot be considered commodity items, and even though they represent only a small fraction of the value of the optical systems they enable, their availability is essential for the success of new high-level applications that rely on those systems. The U.S. optics industry is currently strongest in the design and manufacture of high-performance specialty products. A key U.S. strength is in optical design, which is being revolutionized by the development of fast and affordable ray-tracing software. The United States can preserve a presence in world markets for optical components and systems by focusing on areas where domestic capabilities are strong and by addressing the process by which international standards are set.
Underpinning the explosive growth of optics are investments in education and research. Research continues to lead to extraordinary discoveries. Although the field is growing rapidly and its impact is both pervasive and far-reaching, it remains a "multidiscipline" with components in many university departments and government programs. The presence of optics in these diverse programs reflects its pervasiveness but also reveals an Achilles' heel. Trends and developments in optics can easily be missed in such a disaggregated enterprise. Educational and research organizations will need to pay close attention to ensure that the field develops in a healthy way that ensures continuing benefits to society.