Lockheed Martin has been awarded an Air Force Research Laboratory contract to develop and produce high-energy fiber laser weapons for tactical fighter aircraft.
Analysts say airborne laser weapons could help non-stealth military aircraft become more resistant to enemy missiles and potentially reduce the vulnerability to advanced air-defense systems.
In a release, Lockheed said its team is "focused on developing a compact, high efficiency laser within challenging size, weight and power constraints." It said the Air Force lab plans to test the laser on a tactical fighter jet by 2021.
The contact is valued at $26.2 million, but the potential market opportunity for such airborne weapon systems in the future could become significant once technology challenges are overcome.
"There are a couple of great advantages of laser weapons, assuming all the technology works properly," said Daniel Goure, a defense analyst and senior vice president of the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Arlington, Virginia. "You get a low cost per shot — much cheaper than a missile in almost every case."
Added Goure, "One of the things we find in a lot of our systems — land, sea and air — is that we run out of shots particularly on the defense. You just run out of bullets or missiles. And if you have laser, it avoids having to reload."
The Lockheed contract is part of the Air Force lab's so-called Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator Advanced Technology Demonstrator (or SHiELD), which is designed to combine small, high-power laser systems on tactical aircraft for self-defense capabilities, including to defend against missiles.
"Lockheed Martin continues to rapidly advance laser weapon systems and the technologies that make them possible," Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed Martin said in a release. "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."
Afzal pointed out that Lockheed earlier this year delivered a ground-based laser for U.S. Army vehicles.
"It's a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform," said the Lockheed executive. "It's exciting to see this technology mature enough to embed in an aircraft."
Laser weapon systems could one day become standard for self-defense capabilities on Air Force aircraft and augment existing kinetic capabilities. It could also be used to better defend non-stealth aircraft that are seen as increasingly vulnerable to advanced anti-aircraft defense systems developed by Russia and China.
Ian Williams, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said even Iranian air defenses are now seen as potentially a challenge for non-stealth U.S. warplanes.
"We have to have stealthy platforms that can penetrate those systems, but if you're looking at something larger like a B-52 or transport aircraft bringing in troops ... they would need extra protection beyond the traditional kind of countermeasures," said Williams.
According to Williams, the military isn't necessarily looking just to kill enemy missiles with directed energy weapons but can also "blind it or throw it off course. They are looking at a lot of applications."
Overall, directed energy weapons are still considered a nascent market although significant progress has been made on laser weapons for use in naval and ground-based applications, including systems capable of downing drones. Airborne laser weapon research isn't new and Boeing was one of the early pioneers.
"There's been a lot of progress on getting the size of directed energy platforms down," said Williams. "They did this a while back with a large chemical laser on a 747 that they used to destroy some Scud-type missiles in tests."
In 2002, Boeing began testing an airborne laser weapons systems aboard a 747-400 aircraft for the Air Force in a program known as YAL-1. The flying testbed was designed to shoot down missiles but had mixed success and the Pentagon scrapped the $5 billion project in 2011.
"It wasn't seen as a practical platform just because you're not going to be flying a 747 full of chemical tanks on it through enemy air space," said Williams. "But it demonstrated that it was possible to destroy missiles with lasers."
Goure agreed, saying the earlier testing provided "an incredible amount as kind of R&D" for the military both in terms of pointing and tracking as well as managing lasers so they could do damage to targets.
"Those kind of things are worth their weight in gold," Goure said. "You can build the most powerful laser in the world, but if you don't get the pointing, tracking and beam control right, you've got a big lighter on your hands and that's it."
Boeing's airborne laser for the YAL-1 used a chemical laser that was fired through the nose assembly on the jet. The Lockheed contract is for a fiber laser, although it's not considered as powerful as the chemical laser based on current technology.
That said, analysts say the chemical lasers tend to be heavier so are less portable and can be toxic and dangerous to handle. As a result, the fiber laser or solid state lasers are considered more practical and current research and development is aimed at helping them to become powerful and reliable.