IT’S BEEN JUST a few months since Lockheed Martin gave the US Army the most powerful laser weapon ever developed, a ground vehicle–mounted system that can burn through tanks and knock mortars out of the sky. Now the US Air Force wants its own toy, so Lockheed’s engineers are back in the lab, crafting the kind of weapon Poe Dameron could get down with. They’re making a laser blaster for a fighter jet to swat down incoming missiles.
Decades after science fiction writers and directors imagined worlds of killer beams flying back and forth, reality is catching up. This spring defense contractor Raytheon became the first to destroy a target with a laser fired from a helicopter. At White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Apache AH-64 shot a truck from more than a mile away, while on the move and from a variety of altitudes. Raytheon is also building a laser-firing, drone-killing dune buggy. Boeing has its own anti-drone laser cannon.
“This technology has been described as ‘coming’ for so long—with it never actually arriving—that people took to believing that it would never happen,” says military analyst Peter Singer. “Well, now it’s happening. After so many false starts, we’re seeing real breakthroughs that are starting to make the idea viable.”
The key enabler has been the development of solid-state lasers, which run on electricity. The previous frontrunner tech was the chemical laser, which requires large amounts of chemicals to generate the reaction that produces its powerful beam. In 2012 the US Missile Defense Agency shelved its Airborne Laser Test Bed, a Boeing 747-based chemical laser designed to shoot down ICBMs, because it was too costly and unwieldy.
In the past decade, solid-state lasers have grown in power and efficiency, to the point that they now represent a viable alternative, one with its own advantages. “We’re now able to generate a focused, powerful beam and are able to hold it on the target long enough to disable it,” Raytheon CEO Tom Kennedy says. “It represents a limitless magazine, as long as you have electricity.”
Now it’s up to Lockheed to bring the pew to the air. The new assignment falls under the Air Force Research Lab’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator program, which, in the ever flexible world of military acronyms, is also known as Shield. The defense contractor is aiming to have a system it can test on a fighter jet by 2021.
Lockheed will be adapting the system it developed for the Army to address the challenge presented by this new $26 million contract, with a goal of self-protection against ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles. The program’s work will be divided among three subsystems, each with its own strained acronym. The Shield Turret Research in Aero Effects (Strafe) includes the beam control system. The Laser Pod Research and Development (LPRD) will power and cool the laser on the fighter jet. Then there’s the laser itself, known as the Laser Advancements for Next-Generation Compact Environments (Lance).
The core technology will be a fiber laser, which uses fiber optics to enhance the power of the beam, with multiple individual lasers bundled together to create a scalable system. Together, they would work to heat up an incoming missile’s fuel tank, causing it to explode, or target control surfaces like fins in order to simply disable it.1
Despite recent advances, making a laser weapon work on the highest-speed military vehicle poses a significant challenge. “We’re putting a weapon traveling at the speed of light onto an aircraft capable of traveling the speed of sound, while targeting threats likely also traveling at supersonic speeds,” says Rob Afzal, Lockheed’s senior fellow for laser weapon systems. And it has to work on the move, no matter the turbulence or weather conditions. “Ruggedization is critical.”
Then there’s the question of reducing the laser’s size, weight, and power consumption to the point where it can work on a small jet. Lockheed developed the aforementioned Airborne Laser Test Bed for the Missile Defense Agency, but that system took up most of the 747’s fuselage. Using a solid-state system should help there. “Not only have we reduced size, weight, and power enough to move from a large plane to a tactical fighter jet, we’ve also reduced the laser to be part of a pod,” Afzal says. “This is a technology maturity level that just five years ago we would have said may take a long time to develop.”
If Lockheed can deliver, the Air Force gets a weapon that’s not just lighter and (likely) cheaper than equivalent missile and machine gun systems, but one that could change how it deploys its fighters. If you’re packing a missile-killing laser, you can go places and do things that now demand the sort of extremely expensive stealth tech of the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning. “The ability of a helicopter or bomber or fighter jet to shoot down or sufficiently damage or distract an incoming missile could allow them to operate in places they haven’t been able to operate recently,” says Singer, the military analyst. “This will allow non-stealthy planes that previously couldn’t defend themselves new potential lives in future combat scenarios.”
Even if that doesn’t eliminate the need for stealth aircraft—since those systems are largely undetectable and offer the element of surprise—Singer argues that they can work as force multipliers. Better yet, they can provide insurance against the quantum radar systems reportedly being developed by the Chinese, which can spot even the stealthiest aircraft. Being invisible isn’t so crucial when you’ve got a laser that lets you waltz into enemy territory, do your job while zapping missiles out of the sky, and cruise home.
At least, that is, until the enemy develops lasers of its own. Then, it’s on to whatever sci-fi weapon comes next. Death Star, anyone?
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1Story updated at 9:15 ET on November 28, 2017 to include more details on how lasers can disable incoming missiles.
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