Air Force could arm fighter jets with future lasers

The Air Force has a target date to install a laser on a fighter jet by 2021.

The Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which leads the service branch work in military applications of lasers, awarded a $26.3 million to Lockheed Martin to develop an airborne laser pod.

AFRL has launched the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstration initiative to expand the use of lasers.

“The Air Force is very interested in moving out in directed energy,” AFRL Executive Director Jack Blackhurst said in an interview with this newspaper earlier this year. “For many years, we in the laboratory have been testing directed-energy technology, both in the laser and in the high-powered microwave (field), and the leadership has now decided that it’s time to move the technology into the field and actually implement this into the Air Force weapon systems.”

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As the size of lasers has shrunk, the Air Force has made gains to stabilize the future weapon systems in fast-moving aircraft flying through turbulence – one of the biggest technical challenges, according to Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson.

The service branch is aiming to have laser-equipped combat jets sometime between 2030 to 2035, she said.

“We don’t have a specific transition point,” she said in an interview with this newspaper. “This is one of the technologies though that we have looked at as having some strong potential” to gain air superiority over adversaries.

Air Force officials have not said what aircraft the laser, which fires invisible beams at the speed of light to disable a target, would be tested on.

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Pawlikowski, a former AFRL commander, was a prior director of the Air Force’s airborne laser system program office, which put a chemical-powered megawatt-producing laser into a the modified Boeing 747. The laser-armed jumbo jet shot down a ballistic missile in a February 2010 test, according to the Air Force. The jet was pulled from the test fleet at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., in 2012.

Lockheed Martin has researched airborne laser “for well over 20 years,” said Katharine Scruggs, a company spokeswoman.

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“It’s a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform,” Rob Afzal, a Lockheed Martin laser researcher, said in a statement. “…The development of high-power laser systems like SHEiLD show laser weapons system technologies are becoming real.”

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