US Air Force planes could be armed with Star Wars type laser guns by the end of this decade, and maybe shields that protect aircraft from incoming missiles and bullets, says the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), which is scheduled to demonstrate the technology by 2020.
Larger aircraft are already able to carry laser weapons fit for their size. However, developing effective and usable laser technology for the smaller warplanes is more challenging. Apart from being small enough not to undermine the fighter jet’s agility, they need to be accurate and effective when travelling at supersonic speeds.
Kelly Hammett, chief engineer for the AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate believes the difficulties scientists face regarding laser weapons for fighter jets will be overcome by the end of this decade.
A prototype turret developed by Lockheed Martin for the the Air Force Research Laboratory and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency controls and compensates for air flow, paving the way for laser weapon systems on jet fighters. Here, a green low-power laser beam passes through the turret on a research aircraft. (Image: Lockheed Martin. Credit: Air Force Research Laboratory.)
In an interview with CNN, Mr. Hammet said:
“It really is a national tipping point. We see the technology evolving and maturing to the stage where it really can be used.”
Fighter jets equipped with laser guns and shields
AFRL is also developing a laser shield for aircraft. When ready, scientists hope it will destroy anything that comes into contact with it, thus protecting the whole airplane.
If a warplane is unable to lose a missile lock, the laser shield would serve as back-up protection. Researchers expect it even to melt ultra-rapid bullets fired at it.
The secret regarding a usable laser technology is making sure the fighter jet does not lose speed, which would place it at a disadvantage against other aircraft.
For air forces across the world, fighter jet speed is king – without it, no matter how sophisticated the plane might be, it will probably never have that edge over enemy aircraft.
AFRL, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and the American global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies giant Lockheed Martin, are working together to develop an effective laser shield turret. They say they have already tested one.
When fighter jets have laser guns and shields, the way battles are lost and won will change dramatically. (Image: images.military.com. Credit: US Air Force)
Lockheed Martin says the the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret is the first-ever turret to demonstrate a 360-degree field of regard for laser weapon systems on an airplane flying close to the speed of sound. This means the plane would be able to fire laser beams in any direction.
The turret’s performance has been verified in almost 60 test flights conducted this year and in 2014 using a business jet as a low-cost flying test bed. “As the aircraft travelled at jet cruise speeds, a low-power laser beam was fired through the turret’s optical window to measure and verify successful performance in all directions,” the company said.
The dynamics of wars and battles changed dramatically when bows, arrows and spears gave way to guns. Mr. Hammet believes attack and defensive laser technology will again transform battle strategies within the next 25 years.
How does a laser weapon work?
A laser weapon works by concentrating light beams on a target. The laser beam – an intense narrow beam of light – can cut through metal and glass like a super-hot knife through butter in fractions of a second.
A laser gun on an airplane could be aimed at enemy targets and ignite them, i.e. destroy them by burning them up.
According to Mr. Hammet, a laser weapon’s force and how long a beam can be held depends on the level of electric power used. Laser technology is energy hungry, so apart from the size of the weapon (which must be small), engineers will have to take into account how much fuel or stored energy a fighter jet can carry without undermining its flying performance.
Laser beams are incredibly accurate. Fighter jets with such technology would be able to take out very small targets with the minimum of collateral damage.
Laser weapons could also be fitted onto drones, Mr. Hammet added, which would mean battles could be fought or missions accomplished without risking pilots’ lives.
Initially, successful air force laser technology would not be used for offensive tactics. More likely it would be used, for example, to help planes secure hot landing zones.
According to Lockheed Martin:
“Science reality has caught up with science fiction. Lockheed Martin is showing that laser weapon systems can turn up the heat and stop land, air or sea targets in their path. And, they can be compact enough and power efficient enough for tactical platforms on the move, providing nearly unlimited “bullets” with speed-of-light response.”
Video – Fighter jets armed with laser weapons
This CNN video talks about the U.S. Air Force and its plans to have laser weapons on military fighter jets by the year 2020.