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Air Force researchers also have aimed to test a laser on what will likely be an aerial refueling tanker by 2021, he said. Air Force Special Operations Forces have shown a growing interest in arming an AC-130 with an air-to-ground laser, and the defense industry has been asked for proposals to using lasers and high-powered microwave beams to protect military bases, Lockhart said.
A directorate experiment to show how directed-energy weapons could guard military installations will launch this fall at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
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But two big technical challenges are yet to be proven: Generating enough power in a miniaturized laser to shoot down or disable a target and aiming the weapon through changing atmospheric conditions, Lockhart said.
Richard J. Mason, a RAND Corp. senior engineer in Santa Monica, Calif., said lasers won’t replace missiles or guns anytime soon, but could add to the firepower of an aircraft.
“If your expectations for the laser are too high, you’ll be disappointed,” he added. “It’s not going to replace the gun … but there are certain things that it could do well.”
He’s cautiously optimistic because of a revolution in electric-powered lasers after “decades upon decades” of promised laser weapons.
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“Lasers are good for hitting small, fast things,” he said. “We don’t currently shoot air-to-air missiles out of the sky and maybe we could with a laser weapon so it’s opening up a new capability.”
The Air Force Special Operations Command has explored putting an air-to-ground laser on an AC-130 aircraft. A laser could potentially be quieter, target more precisely and avoid collateral damage compared to heavy machine guns and bombs, said Mason, who studied the issue for the service branch.
“They don’t want the noise, they don’t want the collateral damage,” he said.
Richard Aboulafia, a senior aerospace analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia, said lasers are on the horizon, but it will take time.
“We’ll see the use of (lasers) as on board weapons eventually, but as with all new technologies it will take longer than expected,” he said in an email.
“The good news is of course they provide weight savings,” don’t run out of ammunition as conventional weapons like missiles, “and they have potentially impressive range capabilities.”
“They may also serve a valuable defensive role against incoming missiles and drones,” he added. “But they do use a lot of energy, and heat generation may be an obstacle, too.”
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The Air Force Research Laboratory reached a $26.3 million deal with Lockheed Martin to develop an airborne laser pod for the fighter jet test, part of an initiative called Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstration, or SHiELD.
The Navy has tested a laser on a warship in the Persian Gulf to defend against drones and small boats with plans to expand the directed-energy weapons use in the fleet in the next decade, media reports say.
The Army has eyed 2023 as a target date to field a laser, reports say.
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BEHIND THE SCENES
The Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Directorate is helping organize future laser tests on Air Force jets. Here’s a snapshot look at the operation.
Number of employees: Eight
Budget: Approximately $70 million
Experimental research: Lasers, light attack aircraft, electronic warfare, multi-domain command and control networks.
Location: Air Force Research Laboratory, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base
SOURCE: Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Directorate