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 Military.com 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 kris.osborn@military.com

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.

      • Bronco46

        And what do you do when the weather doesn’t cooperate. These kinds of weapons require clear skies. Laser beams are degraded by even thin clouds, rain, snow, dust, etc.. And please don’t let the air force forget their mistake of removing the gun from the F-4. I hope they won’t forget what happened in Vietnam.

        • William_C1

          Umm you know the F-4 Phantom II started out as a Navy interceptor right? So how is it the Air Force’s mistake the F-4 lacked an internal gun (which they corrected with the F-4E).

          • Bronco46

            It was a general comment about the dangers of removing the gun. And whether they corrected it or not. There tens of thousands of sorties flown in Vietnan by F-4’s without a gun. And by the time they realized their mistake they had to strap one on.
            Were you being deliberately obtuse?

          • UAVgeek

            The gun is visually sighted too, bad weather that would affect lasers would affect gun shots as well, not to mention IR Missiles.

        • NathanS

          Certain frequencies work better than others. For example, radar is just an EM frequency on the spectrum, and it performs well regardless of weather. Also, Laser is used in Lidar systems to “see through” the canopy of even the thickest jungle and survey the ground.

          Lasers of sufficient energy are also thought to ionize the air and create a pathway through the atmosphere in the same way that lightning does.

          The Army have stated that they’ve tested the HEL MD system in wind, rain, and fog of Florida. They use a reference beam to detect the atmospheric conditions that might distort the beam and adjust the beam to compensate (the same way the Hubble telescope does despite clouds of dust and asteroid belts in space). They stated they destroyed more than 150 aerial targets including mortars, rockets, artillery, and UAVs, and achieved all performance objectives. The Navy are also busy testing their LaWS system at the moment in the Persian Gulf to test it in the field in the full range of conditions. It’s performed so well that last September it was declared an operational asset, and can be used in self-defense.

          • Bronco46

            Interesting facts that should have been in the article.

          • Dfens

            Yeah, except the Hubble telescope is above the atmosphere and therefore doesn’t need a system to compensate for atmospheric conditions. Probably a good thing because NASA would have screwed that up too. There are telescopes that do use the system, and often they are terrestrial such as this one: https://www.ll.mit.edu/publications/labnotes/visi…. That technology has been around for a while.

          • guest

            Interesting name……………and a GREAT movie! :-)

        • John Deere

          Weather? Are you serious?

          An air waveguide renders atmospheric conditions irrelevant.

          • blight_

            http://www.microwave-eetimes.com/en/air-waveguide

            “Milchberg creates his air waveguides using very short, very powerful laser pulses. A sufficiently powerful laser pulse in the air collapses into a narrow beam, called a filament. This happens because the laser light increases the refractive index of the air in the center of the beam, as if the pulse is carrying its own lens with it.

            Milchberg showed previously that these filaments heat up the air as they pass through, causing the air to expand and leaving behind a “hole” of low-density air in their wake. ”

            Interesting indeed. Although it sounds like a two pulse system: one pulse to create the waveguide, and a second to deliver effects.

          • Dfens

            I pulled a laser diode out of a blue ray player a while back with a plan to turn it into a mega-laser-pointer. I’m guessing even with 2 batteries it won’t be up to the whole, “turning the atmosphere into a waveguide” power levels. Very unfortunate.

        • charelz

          New adaptive optics technology allows for much greater range in adverse weather conditions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adaptive_optics

      • oblatt23

        Thick about a weapon that can dominate the air just by the power of the mind.

        Its about as likely as an operational laser weapon any time soon.

  • 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.

    • Dfens

      So do the pilots have to provide their own PEW, PEW, PEW sounds, or does it come with it’s own sound generator?

      • charelz

        Actually, Lockheed added Star Wars sound effects to the operator’s interface because the lasers and silent and often the engagements are over before you know it since the targets don’t explode, they just fall out of the sky. And they use a Playstation controller, by the way.
        http://www.nature.com/news/military-technology-la

        • Dfens

          Good article, thanks for the link. I believe the Playstation controller is optional, though.

    • ronaldo

      Remember it ? It’s quite the rage in the defense industry press. GA is showing it as installed in their Avenger 2.

  • 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.

    • Dylan

      Don’t forget that adding ablative coating to every vulnerable surface forces an opponent to sacrifice performance and add significant weight, cost, and maintenance expenses to everything they want to fly against us. If lasers become even slightly viable, if not widespread, it will still force an opponent to expend billions if they expect to counter it.

      • Christopher

        All they would really need is a longer ranged missile and low-cost metals to its outer layer. Lasers also make poor weapons for when it rains or any adverse weather.

      • Bernard

        Intumescent paint is cheap and light weight. You can buy it at Home Depot.

        • Dylan

          Now throw 100 kilowatts at it. Now maintain this coating across an entire aircraft without degrading flight characteristics or affecting maintenance downtime. Now also integrate stealth characteristics while maintaining this coating on the outermost surface. Now figure out how to do all this to a cockpit canopy, radar dome, and every single sensor or weapon you hang off the airframe. Now tally up your costs, and figure out how many more planes you could have bought if you didn’t have to guard against all this. Congrats- you either have a vastly reduced, less stealthy force that can defend against laser attacks, or you ignored laser protection and have a large force completely vulnerable to this weapon.

          • Christopher

            Somebody doesn’t know how to do math. China is perusing anti laser coatings because they can’t afford lasers weapons.
            You’re view of technology also seems as outdated as the thinking of USAF Generals.
            Also no country except the US is dumb enough too make all their fighters stealthy.

          • Dfens

            Yeah, why would they want to make an airplane stealthy to protect if from lasers? Everyone who has ever played a video game knows you target the alien ships with a joystick, not a radar. Duh. Now about those PEW, PEW, PEW sounds, how do you think they do those?

          • Christopher

            Seems you bought into Lockheed’s propaganda Dfens. Go take you’re meds dude.
            If you did you’d know that neer pear adversaries did not stop developing VHS radars since WW2, unlike the West.

          • JohnnyRanger

            Go back to third grade English, dude.

          • blight_

            VHF, you mean.

            In the end we optimized our low RCS designs against some types of radars, but not others. The same is true of jamming systems: we rely on clandestine methods of determining how enemy radar systems work, and then design accordingly.

            The increasing rate-of-change of costs is not always attributeable to the stealthy design, if anything it is related to delays associated with avionics systems. Undoubtedly the techniques to fabricate the materials of the F-35 should have matured during the demonstrator stage and during early production of pre-IOC F-35’s (can we call them YF-35’s?)

          • John Scior

            no, vhs radar, its a video cassete player that has the movie top gun playing on it.

          • blight_

            Highway to the Danger Zone…!

          • Dfens

            Right, because physics is actually all Lockheed propaganda. Everyone knows that.

          • UAVgeek

            A laser beam through the canopy will do more than enough damage to the most important component on the aircraft.

          • blight_

            Boom, head shot!

  • 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?!?!

    • Dfens

      That’s hilarious! The big “O” on the vertical and the duck bill nose. Someone had some fun making that rendering. Good eyes!

    • Big-D

      hahaha, that’s awesome

      F-35 getting shot down by our own people with it’s hidden University of Oregon logo-I truly think the artist is trying to tell us something ;-P

  • http://live-defensetech.sites.thewpvalet.com/2015/05/22/air-force-wants-to-fire-lasers-from-aircraft-by-2023/ karunesh

    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.

      Edit: http://ppc.warhawkenterprises.com/bolo/bolotech.h

  • 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.

    • NathanS

      Even today’s 10 kilowatt systems that are small enough to be mounted on Army vehicles (e.g. the HEL MD program) has been used to shoot down more than 150 mortars, artillery, rockets, and UAVs in rain and fog in Florida last September. So I don’t think aircraft mounted system capable of destroying an air-to-air missile will be far away at all.

      The Navy currently has a 30 kilowatt systems deployed and operational on the USS Ponce. Due to the Geneva Convention prohibiting weapons that blind, against manned assets they look to destroy / disable the asset rather than the pilot by targeting the engine or other critical components of enemy craft. They’re looking to deploy 100-150 kilowatt systems in the next year or two.

      • Bronco46

        It will never cease to amaze me that we have rule for war; like no blinding. It’s OK to blow off extremities. But don’t blind that guy.

        • blight_

          If you designed an automatic system that fired paintballs at people’s eyes if they threw rocks, it would be banned as a blinding weapon. Or one that fired tear gas, based on a dubious interpretation of the CWC.

      • John Scior

        once the plane crases into the ground, who is to say wether the pilot was blindedby a laser or athe sun, or perhaps his engine hit some shrapnel. Point is that its difficult to prove. Also I believesome commercial aircraft have lasers thatblind IR missiles.

      • blight_

        Once it’s powerful enough to burn through the eyeballs and into the brains, it becomes a killing weapon instead of a non-lethal blinding weapon. Then Geneva Convention goes away.

  • ABS

    HELLADS

  • 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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