Airborne laser weapons: Where are we now, and when can we deploy?

Laser weapons have been one of the most important topics of discussion in the Pentagon at least for the past five years, and several weapons programs involving high-energy lasers are in advanced development.

May 16th, 2017
John Keller New

Laser weapons have been one of the most important topics of discussion in the Pentagon at least for the past five years, and several weapons programs involving high-energy lasers are in advanced development.

There's the U.S. Navy's shipboard Laser Weapon System (LaWS) which was deployed for operational tests aboard the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce. Then there's the Boeing truck-mounted High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) for use against air and ground targets. The most important potential future applications of tactical airborne laser weapons are jet fighter aircraft and combat helicopters, which confront the designer with some difficult problems.

Airborne lasers on jet aircraft and helicopters must be small enough not to overwhelm the airframes, and powerful enough to shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles, as well as take out ground targets like combat vehicles, radar installations, and missile launchers.

Military agencies have several projects in the works to develop airborne laser weapons for tactical aircraft, yet Air Force systems integrators evidently believe it's time to take stock of what's been developed, and what kind of work still needs to be done before tactical airborne laser weapons can become reality. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., issued the Airborne Tactical Laser Technology request for information last month that seeks to determine today's state of the art in airborne laser weapons technology, and the companies best able to provide it.

There's been no lack of tactical laser weapons research projects in recent years. In 2013, there was the Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control (ABC) program of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to user laser weapons to protect combat aircraft against attacks from the rear. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Sunnyvale, Calif. won a $9.5 million contract that year to flight-test an active flow control turret mounted on a business jet to validate turret requirements, design, and predicted performance of previously developed ABC technology.

Earlier this year, DARPA launched the Efficient Ultra-Compact Laser Integrated Devices (EUCLID) project to develop compact, fiber laser diode modules suitable for pumping high-power fiber laser weapons on a variety of manned and unmanned combat aircraft and tactical land vehicles.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, Calif., has started working with the U.S. Air Force to develop beam-control technology to protect current and future fighter aircraft with directed-energy systems under the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) advanced technology demonstration (ATD) program of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

DARPA hired Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin in late 2013 for Project Endurance to develop laser weapons to defend aircraft from missiles. This initiative involved pod-mounted laser weapons to protect manned aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR)-guided surface-to-air missiles.

This is far from an exhaustive list of military technology development that aims at tactical airborne laser weapons. There's a lot of energy, plenty of money, and a considerable amount of enthusiasm headed in this direction. Much of the effort thus far has focused on defensive tactical airborne laser weapons. Now it's time for the big stuff: powerful offensive tactical airborne laser weapons.

Perhaps now is a good time to see what's out there, and plan for the difficult technology development necessary in the future to bring about fieldable laser weapons for tactical jets and helicopters.

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