The Air Force Wants Fighter Jets With Lasers

A once-fanciful notion is edging closer to reality.

Lockheed Martin is helping the Air Force Research Lab develop high energy laser weapon systems. 

Source: Air Force Research Lab/Lockheed Martin

Fighter pilots have an array of missiles and cannon fire at their disposal. The U.S. Air Force anticipates a day when a third, futuristic weapon becomes common: A high-powered laser.

The Air Force Research Lab awarded Lockheed Martin Corp. a $26 million contract this week to develop a high-energy laser system to test on a tactical fighter jet by 2021. Lockheed officials declined to specify the laser’s capabilities or to identify which aircraft the service will use to test it.

The Pentagon has taken a keen interest in “directed-energy” platforms as a way to protect U.S. forces from drone swarms, missiles and mortar fire. In the future, lasers are likely to play a larger role as weapons systems given their lower cost relative to missiles. The Army has fielded a laser for testing, and in late 2014 the Navy tested a laser system aboard the USS Ponce

Lockheed’s platform for the Air Force is dubbed LANCE, Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments, and is part of a larger program which includes separate research work on beam control and firing, and a jet-mounted pod system to power and cool the laser. Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. have been awarded work on those aspects of the platform, respectively.

“The challenge has been that we’ve been able to build higher and higher power lasers and in smaller and smaller packages,” Rob Afzal, a Lockheed senior fellow, said Tuesday. Much of the research has involved ways to generate more efficient, electrically powered lasers that generate less heat, which must be extracted from the system, he said. The defense contractor’s laser technology is a fiber laser, meaning it combines individual lasers from fiber optics to generate a single beam.

While a laser mounted on a fighter jet immediately conjures images from Star Wars, Afzal stressed that the Air Force sees the laser as a “self-defense mission” to protect forces from missiles and drones.

If it were deployed as a weapon, “it’s not necessarily clear that it will be effective,” he said. A spokesman for the Air Force Research lab did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The U.S. Army has been testing lasers for some time with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, gradually increasing the power generated. In 2014, Lockheed Martin won a $25 million contract to deliver a laser weapon to the Army to counter threats from rockets, artillery, and pilotless drones. That device, the 60 kilowatt High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD), was delivered earlier this year for field testing.

Lasers have been front-of-mind for the military for some time. For about a decade, Boeing and the Air Force tested a large chemical laser aboard a Boeing 747-400 freighter. The Airborne Laser program, YAL-1, was designed to destroy ballistic missiles. The program was canceled in 2011.

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