Lasers, as weapons, cutting tools or navigational instruments seem to carry equal sentiments of science fiction fantasy and appreciation for the technology’s more practical applications. And believe it or not, the work being done by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Air Force carries a little of each.
In the recent past, we’ve seen Lockheed develop the most powerful laser ever, but it was contained in a ground vehicle. Raytheon was the first to destroy a target with a laser fired from a helicopter, but the ability to use fighter jets as both a deterrent and for shooting down ballistic missiles continues to be Lockheed’s white whale.
The most significant development relating to lasers has been their transition from relying on chemicals to using electricity as their source of power. New solid-state lasers are not only more reliable, but they’re significantly cheaper and easier to control. Additionally, as long as electrical power is present, the laser “gun” essentially never runs out of ammo. It can be trained on a target or repetitively fired for as long as necessary.
So, while the power issue has been effectively addressed, what remains is re-configuring laser weapon designs so that they’re compact enough not to hinder the aerodynamics of the jet, rugged enough to handle the turbulence, and stable enough to fire on the move. These are the questions that the Air Force Research Lab’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator program, or SHiELD, will help Lockheed answer.
One of the primary solutions Lockheed will focus on with the $26 million it was awarded will be the use of fiber-optic lasers. The efficiency of these materials not only enhances the laser beam’s power, but creates a more scalable weapons system, and reduces the laser’s size and power consumption.
The primary benefits of the jet-mounted laser will be defending against ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles with a lighter weapons system that is less expensive to produce and could spare larger, more expensive jets from these types of missions.
Lockheed is shooting for a systems test by 2021.