Air Force Wants to Fire Lasers from Aircraft by 2023

Air Force laserThe Air Force plans to be able to incinerate targets such as incoming missiles with laser weapons mounted on C-17s by 2023 as part of a directed energy developmental effort, service official said.

The High Energy Laser, or HEL, is being tested by the Air Force Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. Ground tests are slated for later this year as part of a plan to precede air-launched laser weapons firing evaluations, Mica Endsley, Air Force Chief Scientist, told in an interview.

The first ever ground test of the weapon is slated to take place at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., said Othana Zuch, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Service officials are working on a solid-state laser guidance mechanism and focus so the weapon can stay on track on a particular target.

“We’re working on maturing a lot of those kinds of technologies,” Endsley said. “We will be transitioning into airborne platforms to get them ready to go into a program of record by 2023.”

Endsley added that the Air Force plans to begin firing laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17s until the technological miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from fighter jets such as an F-15, F-16 or F-35.

The Air Force is interested in firing the weapon from sub-sonic, transonic, and supersonic platforms, Zuch added.

Aircraft-launched laser weapons could eventually be engineered for a wide range of potential uses including air-to-air combat, close-air-support, counter-UAS, counter-boat, ground attack and even missile defense, Air Force official said.

“The application will be things like being able to defeat an incoming missile for example, so that as opposed to a kinetic kill that would blow up that weapon the laser will basically melt through the metal and electronics using these non-kinetic techniques,” Endsley added.

The first airborne tests are expected to take place by 2021, Zuch added.

The developmental efforts are focused in increasing the power, precision and guidance of existing laser weapon applications, Endsley added.

“We want to put those capabilities in to a system that will move from something like 10 kilowatts up to 100 kilowatts — up to greater power.  We will work on things like guidance, control and precision,” she said.

Energy to fire aircraft lasers is engineered to come from on-board jet fuel to potentially enable thousands of shots, Endsley added.

“The real advantage is it would have a much more extended magazine. Today’s have five, six, seven missiles. With a directed energy weapon you could have thousands of shots with a gallon of gasoline – a gallon of jet fuel,” she said.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Air Force has tried to mount a laser to an aircraft. The service tried to design an aircraft with a laser in the nose cone for missile defense purposes with a different style laser.

The Airborne Laser program featured a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser. It was tested in the nose cone of a Boeing 747-400 Freighter. Air Force officials say they are now benefiting from the technological efforts of  its previous ABL program.

However, Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the program in 2009 when he said it was unaffordable and questioned if it would ever be feasible.

“The ABL program has significant affordability and technology problems, and the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable,” he said in 2009 when he announced the end of DoD funding for the program.

— Kris Osborn can be reached at

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • derf

    So instead of missiles that have a range of 10, 20, or 50 miles, we’ll be using lasers with a range of 1/10 that?

    As defensive equipment, lasers may make sense (if you can get the power source small enough). As offensive equipment, the entire idea is a joke.

    • Dylan

      This isn’t meant to replace long-range missiles. Think about having a laser instead of a pair of Sidewinders and a gun. Against another air opponent, you would dominate the fight within visual range, be able to attack from almost any orientation, have virtually limitless ammo depending on fuel state, and have a weapon practically immune to decoys. Not only that, but ground support missions would then have the ability to make incredibly precise surgical strikes against targets to disable or kill. If they can find a way to fit this kind of system on a fighter or frontline airframe with a usable amount of power, it is going to change the battlefield.

  • BlackOwl18E

    Does anyone remember the HELLADS weapon program? It was supposed to be a laser about the size of a refrigerator mounted under tactical aircraft. As far as I can tell it’s still on going and has already done some tests. I remember reading somewhere that the Super Hornet and F-35 were both supposed to get HELLADS as a weapon system in the future.

  • Christopher

    Lasers could only replace Autocannons. Too much air resistance for them to do that job of missiles. Ablative coating would also make them less effective.
    Still looks like an Air Force pipe dream. May as well wait until magnetic weapons become viable. As those will have better WVR, BVR and strike capability.

  • Lance

    So then with this wouldn’t stealth tech be obsolete it wouldn’t matter to be detected, because of the laser will destroy incoming SAMS and AA missiles.

    the DoD is biting way too much off than it can financially chew. face it it still has JSF and Ford class carrier but it want Star Wars weapon for real in just a couple of years. Think Obama appointees must go before he demands the Star Ship Enterprise by 2025.

    • Rod

      You’re right… darn Obama for appointing the Air Force who appointed Mica Endsley as the Chief Scientist.

  • Highguard

    Silver Fox, You’ve been hard at work I see! Don’t get flustered over all the criticism. Stay on it. We know what the real focus of laser weapons will be. Jihadis will have to wear metal jackets and helmets every time they go out doors.

    Kirtland and LMCO were ready to put a 150kw HEL in the F-35B fan well 3 years ago. All the talk about miniaturization above is BS. All the criticisms are spot on. How is the heck are you going to connect the turbine with the generator on an F-16. For the limited mission sets we need it for, we could have a SQ of F-35D Laser Strike Fighters (LSFs) within 4 years. Within 2yrs we could have F-15F HELFs using the centerline pod concept. Just have to do a little work on the heat dissipation and generator recharge issues. All Kirtland needs is a couple of F-35Bs and F-15Cs. That should be enough and we certainly don’t need to waste any C-17s on giant lasers to nowhere. Hmmmmm….gives a whole new concept to Pigs in Space!

  • Big-D

    All they have to do is get George Lucus to build them, he’ll get ‘er done. ;-P

  • JohnnyRanger

    Is that a picture of an F-22 shooting frickin’ lasers at a University of Oregon strike fighter?!?!

  • This will really be a big milestone in avoinics

    • Bronco46

      Avionics are the electronic systems that control an aircraft. Avionics can also be radar or jamming equipment. But a laser would be part of the weapons system like guns or bombs.

  • Scott

    Anyone read Keith Laumer’s Bolo sci-fi novels? In his series, the introduction of directed energy weapons was partially responsible for adoption of super-intelligent battle tanks as the premier weapons of war. They could mount far heavier armor than any aircraft, destroy any target within line of sight, and stop incoming missiles and artillery rounds.

    Imagine a tank the size of a Navy destroyer rolling across the deserts of the Middle East and you’ve got the idea…

    • John Scior

      Imagine the fuel tank neccesary to get it there, or perhaps a nuclear power plant sized reactor ????

      • amauyong

        Think fusion power plant…probably…

        • John Scior

          that should be ready in about 30 years, and always will be.

    • blight_

      The earliest Bolo Mk 1’s were using projectile weapons, eventually getting railguns, then energy weapons (as infinite repeaters), and then the Hellbores and Hellrails. Bolos didn’t get self-aware AI’s until much later in the series, let alone fully autonomous AI that could operate without a human handler.


  • balais

    Lasers on fighters are a sci-fi fantasy, nothing more. The entire DEW concept is another pyramic scheme to be used to justify expending public dollars. The dangerous thing is that we already cannot replace aging systems that need replaced.

  • oblatt23

    Excellent PR. While operationally ineffective lasers enable the air-force to pour more money into wasteful contractors for no result.

  • John Scior

    It would work well in blinding guidance systems of incoming air-to-air missiles as well as blinding oppositional pilots. As far as actually shooting down, ( ie cutting through metal and destroying working parts ) it would take a much greater power source than one that is currently available in the air. Incurrent situations, itwould enablesurvival rates and be syneristic with existing offensive missile technology. Perhaps an evolved rail gun in 5-7 years would be able to store enough electricity to zap the mechanical system out of the air if minitiarized enough.

  • ABS


  • hialpha

    Sharks with friggen lasers…

  • Fatman

    After reading about this program for a few decades now its hard to believe its coming to fruition. Metamaterials are making a lot of this possible.

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