In science-fiction movies and television shows, lasers are often used for fighter combat. Whether it is the Rebel X-wings from Star Wars or Air Force F-302s from Stargate SG-1, laser bolts have been taking out bad guys for years. But in real life, lasers aren't there yet. Not by a long shot. Their biggest military application has been as a guidance system for weapons like the AGM-114 Hellfire and the Paveway laser-guided bombs.
That is in the process of changing. According to a report by CNBC, the Air Force has given Lockheed a contract to develop "high-energy fiber laser weapons" for tactical fighters that are not equipped with stealth technology. The intent is to give planes like Lockheed's F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Boeing F-15 Eagle a means to destroy incoming surface-to-air missiles.
The concept High-Energy Fiber Laser can turn a Seahawk or Blackhawk into a Laserhawk. (Cropped from Lochkeed graphic)
According to a Nov. 6 release by Lockheed, the contract comes from the Air Force Research Laboratory, which has a Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD program in place. The program has three components:
- SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE), a targeting system for the laser beam.
- Laser Pod Research & Development (LPRD), which will design the pod to power and cool the laser
- Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE), the high energy laser itself.
Lockheed has a concept High-Energy Fiber Laser that would turn a Blackhawk into a Laserhawk, albeit the pallet shown in a Lockheed graphic is too large for use on a fighter like the F-16 or F-15. That system is intended to help counter rocket and mortar attacks using a laser that can produce up to 30 kilowatts.
The Athena laser weapon system. (Youtube Screenshot from Lockheed video)
"The development of high power laser systems like SHiELD show laser weapon system technologies are becoming real. The technologies are ready to be produced, tested and deployed on aircraft, ground vehicles, and ships," Dr. Rob Afzal said in the Lockheed release.
While the system seems geared towards zapping missiles, past tests have seen lasers used on vehicles and unmanned aircraft. Soon, it could be that hauling a gun like the A-10's GAU-8 could be a thing of the past.