Networks are said to be one of the U.S. military's Achilles' heels.
Cutting off communications through jamming or the destruction of infrastructure could be devastating to battlefield commanders. Peer and near-peer competitors such as China, Russia and Iran are reportedly boosting their electronic warfare capabilities.
Laser communications, also known as free space opticals, hold the promise of giving the military a means to transmit high amounts of data and voice that is hard to detect and an alternative to traditional radio frequencies.
Proponents say it is ready for prime time and mature enough for it to proliferate in the military realm more widely. Interest in the technology is also growing in the private sector, which may bring down costs for end users.
Research firm MarketsandMarkets in a July report said the free space optical business is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 45 percent through 2020.
John P. Leuer, executive director of next generation communications at Boeing's space and intelligence systems division, said at the recent Milcom conference that "the commercial sector is leading the world and the nation in this technology. It used to be the other way around. It used to be the DoD."
Boeing is just one of several defense contractors developing the technology for military and civil applications.
Anthony Nigara, senior director for advanced systems at Exelis, which is working on a laser communications project for the Office of Naval Research, said in an interview that adversaries may want to block, degrade or eavesdrop on U.S. military communications. And there is another pressing problem that the technology can help solve: crowded airwaves.
Radio spectrum is increasingly congested. Domestically, the military is being forced to share blocks of spectrum with commercial wireless providers. Coordinating spectrum usage overseas can be even more complicated. Some of the interference isn't coming from adversaries, but friendly forces. Electronic fratricide, the degradation of one's own communications systems through overuse or mismanagement of spectrum, is a growing problem.
"Even if you could operate those links in a contested environment, you really need a fatter pipe," Nigara said.
Laser communication uses pulses of light to transmit the ls and Os. Data rates can be 100 to 1,000 times faster than traditional radio frequency systems.
"The system is capable today. It's moving towards transition into a...