America's enemies will soon face a weapon, once confined to the Star Wars films, that can bring death at the speed of light.
The special operations AC-130 Spectre gunship, whose conventional weaponry has been used to devastating effect since the Vietnam War, is to be fitted with a laser that can shoot down missiles, punch holes in aircraft and knock out ground radar stations.
Despite the successful operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, the emergence of asymmetric terrorist warfare - attacks such as September 11 where the enemy is unseen - has led the Pentagon to identify the need for a more sophisticated and deadly weapons system.
The next generation gunship, codenamed AC-X and nicknamed 'Son of Spectre' by US defence officials, will carry all the weaponry already used on the AC-130, including twin 20mm Vulcan cannon (capable of firing 2,500 rounds per minute), 40mm Bofor cannon (100 rounds per minute) and a 105mm Howitzer. Its 21st-century addition, however, will be its biggest punch: a chemical oxygen iodine laser (Coil), capable of carrying out lethal and non-lethal attacks.
The advantage of laser weapons is that they strike at the speed of light. In the Coil, the power of a chemical reaction is converted to laser energy, and the weapon can carry on firing as long as its power source is intact.
Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary, has given the go-ahead for the next-generation AC-130, which includes full funding for the "integration of a direct-energy weapon".
The Pentagon is yet to announce when the new laser-equipped "Son of Spectre" will come into operation, but it is understood that the first upgraded version could be involved in military operations within two years.
Although lasers exist that can hit aircraft, disable optically guided missiles and destroy communications lines, the ability to vaporise enemy troops and vehicles Star Wars-style will take a few more years to develop.
The Spectre, flown by the 16th Special Operations Squadron, has a crew of 13, including two observers using television and infra-red images to direct the four gunners on to their target.
Working in pairs, normally providing close air support for special forces ground operations, Spectres can circle targets for hours, pulverising areas the size of football pitches with extraordinary precision.
The Spectre has, however, come to the end of its operational life and further upgrades have been ruled out on cost grounds.
Rob Hewson, the editor of Jane's Air Launched Weapons, said: "The laser will be the atomic weapon of the 21st century. Since the 1970s, US scientists have conducted a series of secret experiments in the Nevada desert using lasers.
"We know that they had lasers capable of causing immense damage but they needed huge power packs. This remains a problem and this is why a laser weapon can only be fitted on an air frame the size of the AC-130. But advances will be made and the power plant will shrink and one day it will dominate the battle field.
"The Americans may already have a very powerful laser weapon far more advanced than we have seen. They have been carrying out research in this field for years but it is a very secret weapons programme and we have no idea how far they have progressed."
Once the Coil and its power plant have been fully developed, the USAF hopes to fit it to a whole range of manned and unmanned aircraft, such as the Predator reconnaissance probe, which is fitted with Hellfire missiles and has been used in CIA operations in Afghanistan.
Lasers could also be used as an additional weapon system to fighters, bombers, helicopter gunships and warships but this is unlikely for a decade.