The F-35A is planned to be armed by laser weapons by the mid-2020’s
Lockheed Martin was recently awarded a $26.3 million contract for the design, development, and production of a high-energy laser weapon for a tactical fighter aircraft by the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL). Part of AFRL’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, this weapon is expected to be implemented by 2021. In a statement by Lockheed Martin, the company’s team is “focused on developing a compact, high-efficiency laser with challenging size, weight, and power constraints.” Even though this contract is $26.3 million, with the progression of technology, there could be possibly a substantial market for such airborne laser systems.
According to Daniel Gourse, a defense analyst and senior vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Arlington, Virginia, said one advantage of laser weapons is the “low cost per shot,” which is “much cheaper than a missile in almost every case.” This method avoids having to reload missiles or bullets. A senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed Martin, Dr. Rob Afzal has said “We have demonstrated our ability to use directed energy to counter threats from the ground, and look forward to future tests from the air as part of the SHiELD system.
The SHiELD program includes three subsystems, according to a press release. SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE) is a beam control system which directs the laser onto the target. Laser Pod Research and Development (LRPD) is a pod that is mounted on a tactical fighter jet, which will provide power to and cool the laser. Finally, Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE) is the high energy, which can be used to train on adversary targets with the goal to disable them. Since LANCE is designed to operate in a compact environment, Lockheed Martin will be focusing on producing a high-efficiency weapon, with similar capabilities and power constraints.
Although Lockheed Martin continues to develop many improvements in defense technology, putting laser weapons systems in tactical aircraft is a “completely new and different challenge,” according to Dr. Afzal. However, in addition to being able to destroy enemy missiles, there are other applications as well. Directed energy missiles are also able to throw the enemy off course and blind them. In addition to ground and naval based applications of laser weapons, a laser can be used to take down drones. Even though significant progress has been made on laser weapon systems, it is still considered a nascent market with ample room for progress.
Although Lockheed Martin is certainly making compelling progress towards an advanced laser weapon system, it was not the first company to come up with such an idea. In fact, Boeing was one of the early pioneers of airborne laser systems. In 2002 Boeing began implementing a laser system aboard a 747-400 aircraft for the Air Force called YAL-1. Even though the Pentagon dismissed this $5 billion project in 2011 due to mixed success, it established that laser weapon systems could potentially destroy enemy missiles.
In our increasingly unstable world, laser weapon systems could be potentially a viable standard for self-defense. Also, lasers could be better used to defend non-stealth aircraft that are vulnerable to attacks. This is important because Iranian air defenses are now seen as a potential challenge for non-stealth U.S. warplanes, according to Ian Williams, director of missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This method of self-defense would potentially have the power to reduce the vulnerability to advanced air-defense systems.