As the United States attempts to close the capability gap presented by Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles, another (even faster) weapon is quickly making its way toward operational service on American fighter jets: lasers.
It may sound like science fiction, but with weapon systems like the AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System (also known as the XN-1 LaWS) already completing successful tests aboard U.S. Navy vessels and the Navy investing another $150 million into Lockheed Martin’s high energy laser system for deployment on Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers in the coming years, it seems the world may soon be entering into an era of directed-energy weapons finding increasing relevance in ordinary combat operations.
“Laser weapons offer war-fighters opportunities for quick and precise target engagement, flexibility and lighter and more responsive support logistics,” Eva Blaylock, spokeswoman for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), told Warrior Maven. The laboratory has been leading the way in the effort to miniaturize laser weapon technology sufficiently to make it both small enough and light enough to be carried aboard military aircraft. Unlike the now defunct Boeing YAL-1, which used a large chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) housed inside a 747 airliner to shoot down ballistic missiles, these new weapons will be compact enough to be carried by aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, though admittedly, they anticipate testing these weapons aboard C-130 and C-17 airframes first, before moving on to smaller platforms.
Newer liquid, solid state or semiconductor lasers are capable of producing powerful directed-energy beams without the need for the massive (and dangerous) COIL systems employed on earlier combat laser platforms. The Air Force has chosen to invest particularly in solid state lasers, as they require only electricity to function and no hazardous chemicals. Scientists now believe these newer systems can be made small enough to be housed within removable pods that could be mounted on an aircraft’s hard points, not unlike additional fuel pods or traditional armaments.
“For a 30 kW laser system, the batteries could weigh on the order of 300 pounds and fit within a volume of half of a cubic meter,” a recent AFRL essay states.
Theoretically, these lasers could replace the gun pods employed by fighters for use in close air support and when dogfights get up close and personal. While aircraft like the F-16 carry a bit more than 500 rounds for their 20mm cannons (enough for five seconds of sustained fire), laser weapons could potentially increase a fighter’s “magazine” by offering more firepower, provided a means to produce or store the energy needed could be made efficient enough. Thus far, the AFRL has already conducted a number of successful ground-based test-fires of the weapon system they hope to install in these pods.
Here is an F-35B testing its gun pod.
It seems most likely that early fighter-mounted laser weapons will be used as defensive assets, engaging with inbound missiles and destroying them before they have the chance to reach their targets. This capability could prove incredibly beneficial to fourth-generation fighters operating in contested airspace, as they lack the stealth capabilities of newer platforms like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Of course, as systems are developed specifically to attempt to locate and target even these stealth platforms, a means to defend against inbound missiles may prove just as important for America’s fifth-generation fighters.
The Air Force expects to conduct its first airborne test of its new laser system as soon as 2021, with the weapons entering into service sometime later in the 2020s.