The Buzz

U.S. Air Force to Arm Fighters with Superpowered SHIELD Lasers

The United States Air Force is developing podded defensive lasers to shoot down incoming air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. But there are many hurdles that have yet to be crossed.

“There is a lot of technology in beam steering and in power management and in thermal management that has to be worked in these that we are working under a considered S&T [science and technology] program with an eye toward transitioning on those to aircraft,” Dr. David Walker, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering, told the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on February 24.

Air Combat Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory are working on a program called SHIELD—for Self-protected High-Energy Laser Demonstration—which would place a 30-kilowatt powered laser into an externally carried pod. As technology improves, the service hopes to grow the power output of the defensive laser.

The SHIELD-pod—which is currently just a demonstrator—is not being designed for fifth-generation stealth fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor or the F-35. The externally carried pod would force those jets to sacrifice their stealth characteristics. Rather, the technology would help older aircraft and conventional fighters like the Boeing F-15E Strike Eagle to better enable those jets to survive in contested airspace.

Initially, the Air Force is focusing on defensive lasers. But eventually—once the technology matures—the service hopes to develop offensive lasers. The Air Force Special Operations Command—working in conjunction the Navy—is examining the possibility of placing an offensive laser onboard an AC-130 gunship, Walker said. However, an AC-130—which is based on the Hercules airframe—is a much larger platform than a fighter. “I think we are on a good path to move to electric lasers,” Walker said.

While defensive lasers in the 100-kilowatt range might be fielded by the mid-2020s, it will take much longer to field long-range offensive air-to-air lasers. Those high-powered lasers would require a minimum of 300-kilowatts—according to Air Force sources—and might take decades to field.

Nonetheless, lasers will be among the technologies the Air Force will study for its Next Gen Air Dominance efforts to replace the F-22 and F-15C Eagle.

Dave Majumdar is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveMajumdar.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force.