The High Energy Laser, or HEL, is being tested by the Air Force Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Ground tests are slated for later this year as part of a plan to precede air-launched laser weapons firing evaluations, Mica Endsley, Air Force Chief Scientist, told Military .com in an interview.
The first ever ground test of the weapon is slated to take place at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., said Othana Zuch, an Air Force spokeswoman.
Service officials are working on a solid-state laser guidance mechanism and focus so the weapon can stay on track on a particular target.
"We're working on maturing a lot of those kinds of technologies," Endsley said. "We will be transitioning into airborne platforms to get them ready to go into a program of record by 2023."
Endsley added that the Air Force plans to begin firing laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17s until the technological miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from fighter jets such as an F-15, F-16 or F-35.
The Air Force is interested in firing the weapon from sub-sonic, transonic, and supersonic platforms, Zuch added.
Aircraft-launched laser weapons could eventually be engineered for a wide range of potential uses including air-to-air combat, close-air-support, counter-UAS, counter-boat, ground attack and even missile defense, Air Force official said.
"The application will be things like being able to defeat an incoming missile for example, so that as opposed to a kinetic kill that would blow up that weapon the laser will basically melt through the metal and electronics using these non-kinetic techniques," Endsley added.
The first airborne tests are expected to take place by 2021, Zuch added.
The developmental efforts are focused in increasing the power, precision and guidance of existing laser weapon applications, Endsley added.
"We want to put those capabilities in to a system that will move from something like 10 kilowatts up to 100 kilowatts — up to greater power. We will work on things like guidance, control and precision," she said.
Energy to fire aircraft lasers is engineered to come from on-board jet fuel to potentially enable thousands of shots, Endsley added.
"The real advantage is it would have a much more extended magazine. Today's have five, six, seven missiles. With a directed energy weapon you could have thousands of shots with a gallon of gasoline – a gallon of jet fuel," she said.
Of course, this isn't the first time the Air Force has tried to mount a laser to an aircraft. The service tried to design an aircraft with a laser in the nose cone for missile defense purposes with a different style laser.
The Airborne Laser program featured a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser. It was tested in the nose cone of a Boeing 747–400 Freighter. Air Force officials say they are now benefiting from the technological efforts of its previous ABL program.
However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the program in 2009 when he said it was unaffordable and questioned if it would ever be feasible.
"The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems, and the program's proposed operational role is highly questionable," he said in 2009 when he announced the end of DoD funding for the program.
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