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Laser Guns on F-15 Fighters? The U.S. Air Force Has Big Plans.

Air Force Lasers
An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron performs a high-speed pass over RAF Lakenheath, England, April 10, 2019. The 492nd conducts routine training daily to ensure RAF Lakenheath brings unique air combat capabilities to the fight when called upon by U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)

The United States Air Force Lifecycle Management Center just awarded Raytheon Technologies a $15.5 million contract to “build and deliver an upgraded version of its high-energy laser weapon system, or HELWS,” according to a Raytheon statement.

Furthermore, the “AFLCMC will test the system in order to define requirements for future production programs, focusing on the air defense of air bases against unmanned aerial vehicles.”

A Raytheon spokesperson stated that thanks to the company’s extensive laser weapon development experience, they are ready to “build another, more robust laser system for the Air Force’s premier organization and take a key step toward defining an air base air defense program of record.”

Raytheon has already been awarded two development contracts by the Air Force for developing their HELWS prototype, valued at $23.8 million and $13.1 million respectively. The HELWS system is essentially a directed energy system, i.e. a laser weapon that concentrates its beam on various targets in order to destroy them by rapidly heating and destroying their electronic components.

Previous HELWS prototypes have been mounted to dune buggy-like vehicles and have presumably been tested statically, as their intended role would be to provide air defense protection for air force bases as a solution to smaller-sized drone threats. This latest air force contract stipulates that the newest HELWS prototypes should be palletized in order to simplify logistics.

The Air Force is not the only branch with laser weapons in the research and development pipeline. Parallel to the Air Force, some U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have already been outfitted with laser weapons during combat deployments and have been tested in near-real world conditions.

Another Air Force laser weapon project, SHiELD, would see fighters like the F-15 armed with laser pods. The Navy’s laser program appears to be more mature than the Air Force’s project and has resulted in higher-output laser weapons, at least until this point in time. This may be in part due to the design challenges inherent in building and designing a fighter jet-mounted laser weapon compared to on a ship. Physical space on a ship is naturally more abundant than on a fighter jet, and a ship has a much greater electricity generation potential, making the Navy’s laser project easier to achieve.

And it’s not just the United States with a horse in the laser weapons race — in addition to similar Russian and Chinese projects, Germany too has recently broken ground on their own domestically developed naval laser weapon. Call it the democratization of technology.

Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Brian Foley

    April 10, 2021 at 11:55 am

    I’ll give them credit, they want to try out a new technology on a tried and true platform instead on trying to meld a wide variety of “whiz-bang” stuff in one fell swoop. The shock value of announcing “laser guns” on a F-15 II platform should give the bad guys some pause for thought (not like the Chinese haven’t already stolen the plans).

  2. Jerome

    April 10, 2021 at 2:20 pm

    Laser tech is well-understood and easy to multiply into a weapon. Democratization of technology would be in private citizens allowed to have such weapons.

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