The day is fast approaching when stealth fighter jets, maneuvering in the sky faster than the speed of sound, can incinerate enemy aircraft or even ground targets with long-range, high power precision laser weapons.
Ground tests and laboratory demonstrations have been underway for many years now at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico to assess, test and refine emerging laser weapons applications, with a mind to bringing the weapons to the air within just the next few years.
In order to bring the prospect of fighter jet-fired laser weapons closer to reality, the Air Force Research Laboratory recently conducted a massive wargame simulation intended to replicate and analyze the details and performance parameters associated with airborne laser use.
The wargame, conducted by the Air Force’s Directed Energy Utility Concept Experiment, combined F-16 pilots with F-15E weapons system officers to evaluate directed energy applications for air warfare.
“We engaged the warfighters in several battlefield scenarios. They gave us some excellent assessments, identifying where there is potential military utility of directed energy weapons,” Teresa LeGalley, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Wargaming and Simulation Lead, said in an AFRL essay.
Air-fired lasers have been showing promise for many years now, as scientists, engineers and weapons developers continue to make progress addressing the many challenges associated with integrating power laser technologies onto fighter jet airframes. The principle challenge, developers explain, is simply getting and integrating an application of mobile, expeditionary power in a small, yet powerful enough technical configuration to succeed in arming fighters with lasers. Not only do the laser weapons need to operate within a smaller form factor to reduce weight and drag on a fighter jet, but they need to be powerful enough to achieve an intended combat effect. Also, thermal management is fundamental to laser weapons application, as they need to be properly cooled so as not to overheat the other electronics on an aircraft or disrupt other aspects of flight.
Given the mobile power challenges, one strategy being explored by the Air Force is to first deploy laser weapons on larger planes such as cargo aircraft, as they are better able to accommodate the transportable power requirements as well as the size, weight and cooling dynamics. Should the applications be miniaturized without losing effectiveness, scaling or combat power, then they can migrate onto smaller, faster fighter jets.
What will this do for combat? Given that the weapons travel at the speed of light, fighter jet laser weapons will be much faster than air-to-air missiles and therefore able to attack more quickly. Laser weapons can also perform various kinds of optical surveillance and are scalable, meaning a laser weapon could be set to completely destroy or merely stun and disable an enemy aircraft.
There is yet another interesting dynamic associated with lasers, as they may help increase the stealth properties of an aircraft, or at least help decrease any kind of detectable radar cross section, should they be used in place of easily detectable sharp weapons hanging on external pylons.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.