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US Air Force fighters & drones will fire laser weapons by the 2020s


Artist's rendering from Air Force Research Lab

The Air Force plans to arm its fleet of drones and fighter jets with high-tech laser weapons able to incinerate enemy targets from the sky, service officials said.

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(drone), counter-boat, ground attack and even missile defense, officials said.

Lasers use intense heat and light energy to precisely incinerate targets without causing a large explosion – and they operate at very high speeds, giving them a near instantaneous ability to destroy fast-moving targets and defend against incoming enemy attacks, Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Greg Zacharias told Scout Warrior in an interview.

"The promise of directed energy is that electricity is cheap. Plus, you get the speed of light working for you so incoming missiles are easier to shoot at," Zacharias said.

Air Force Research Laboratory officials have said they plan to have a program of record for air-fired laser weapons in place by 2023.

Ground testing of a laser weapon called the High Energy Laser, or HEL, was slated to take place last year at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., service officials said. The High Energy Laser test is being conducted by the Air Force Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

The first airborne tests are expected to take place by 2021, Air Force officials have said.

The developmental efforts are focused on increasing the power, precision and guidance of existing laser weapon applications with the hope of moving from 10-kilowatts up to 100 kilowatts, Air Force leaders said.

Air Force weapons developers are also working on the guidance mechanisms to enable laser weapons to stay on-track on a particular target, Zacharias added.

Zacharias explained that much of the needed development involves engineering the size weight and power trades on an aircraft needed to accommodate an on-board laser weapon. Developing a mobile power-source small enough to integrate onto a fast-moving fighter jet remains a challenge for laser technology, he added.

"The other part is all the component technology. You are going to give up fuel or some armaments. It is not just getting enough power on board it is getting the aiming technology. Its dealing with turbulent air flow on a high-speed platform," Zacharias said.

Air Force leaders have said that the service plans to begin firing laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17s and C-130s until the technological miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from fighter jets such as an F-15, F-16 or F-35.

Air Combat Command has commissioned the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator Advanced Technology Demonstration which will be focused on developing and integrating a more compact, medium-power laser weapon system onto a fighter-compatible pod for self-defense against ground-to-air and air-to-air weapons, a service statement said.

Air Force Special Operations Command has commissioned both Air Force Research Laboratory and the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren to examine placing a laser on an AC-130U gunship to provide an offensive capability.

A key advantage of using laser weapons would include an ability to melt or incinerate an incoming missile or enemy target without necessarily causing an explosion.

Another advantage is an ability to use a much more extended magazine for weapons. Instead of flying with six or seven missiles on or in an aircraft, a directed energy weapons system could fire thousands of shots using a single gallon of jet fuel, Air Force experts explained.

Drones Fire Lasers

Air Force drones will also one day fire high-tech laser weapons to destroy high-value targets, conduct precision strikes and incinerate enemy locations from the sky, senior service officials told Scout Warrior.

When it comes to drones, there does not yet appear to be a timetable for when fired lasers would be operational weapons - however weapons technology of this kind is moving quickly.

Zacharias also said future laser weapons could substantially complement existing ordnance or drone-fired weapons such as a Hellfire missile.

Laser weapons allow for an alternative method of destroying targets, rapid succession of fire, reduced expenditure of dollars and, quite possibly, increased precision, service officials have explained.

For instance, a key advantage of using laser weapons would include an ability to melt or incinerate an incoming missile or enemy target without necessarily causing an explosion. This would be of particular relevance, for example, in air attack such as the current campaign against ISIS over Iraq and Syria.

ISIS fighters are known to deliberately blend in among civilians, therefore making it difficult to pinpoint enemy targets without endangering innocent civilians. Precision attacks without an explosion, therefore, would provide a useful additional tactical option.

Zacharias said laser-armed drones could likely provide an impactful part of an on-the-move arsenal of weapons.

"You might want to put lasers on board so you have a distributed package when you have a bunch of different platforms carrying different parts - of weapons, sensors and even fuel in one very expensive fighter package. It is like having distributed satellite. You could have distributed fighter packages as well," Zacharias said.

Firing laser weapons would certainly provide a different option than a 100-pound, explosive, tank and building-killing Hellfire missile.

Although firing lasers from drones is expected to be more complicated than arming fighter jets or aircraft with lasers, the existing development of laser weapon technology is quite likely to inform drone-laser development as well.

Man-in-the-Loop

As technology progresses, particularly in the realm of autonomous systems, many wonder if a drone will soon have the ability to find, acquire, track and destroy and enemy target using sensors, targeting and weapons delivery systems – without needing any human intervention.

While that technology is fast-developing, if not already here, the Pentagon operates under and established autonomous weapons systems doctrine requiring a "man-in-the-loop" when it comes to decisions about the use of lethal force, Zacarias explained.

"There will always be some connection with human operators at one echelon or another. It may be intermittent, but they will always be part of a team. A lot of that builds on years and years of working automation systems, flight management computers, aircraft and so forth," he said.

Although some missile systems, such as the Tomahawk and SM-6 missiles, have sensor and seeker technologies enabling them to autonomously, or semi-autonomously guide themselves toward targets – they require some kind of human supervision. In addition, these scenarios are very different that the use of a large airborne platform or mobile ground robot to independently destroy targets.

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