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LANCE: The Air Force’s New Laser Weapon That Could Break All the Rules?

Lockheed Martin is helping the Air Force Research Lab develop and mature high energy laser weapon systems, including the high energy laser pictured in this rendering. Credit: Air Force Research Lab (PRNewsfoto/Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed Martin delivered a high-energy laser weapon, named LANCE, to the Air Force Research Lab last February. Lockheed announced the delivery on Monday, July 11, revealing what had previously been a secret transaction. The delivery represents a significant landmark in Air Force efforts to arm their fighter jets with lasers.  

The Pentagon has been researching and funding laser weapon development for years. What makes LANCE special is the system’s small size paired with high power. “It is the smallest, lightest, high energy laser of its power class that Lockheed Martin has built to date,” Tyler Griffin, a Lockheed executive, told reporters. “It is a critical benchmark in developing an operational laser weapon system in the airborne domain.”

Latching Onto the Laser

Lockheed has been working on laser weapons for years, too. In the last decade, Lockheed has engineered several major milestones in laser weapon development; Lockheed programs including ALADIN, HEFL, ATHENA, and ADAM have helped make laser weaponry a feasible platform. “At sea, in the air and on the ground, Lockheed Martin is developing laser weapon systems to protect warfighters on the battlefield. Combined with expert platform integration, these systems are designed to defeat a growing range of threats to military forces and infrastructure,” the Lockheed Martin website explains. “Our technology today is ready to defend against small rockets, artillery shells and mortars, small unmanned aerial vehicles, small attack boats and lightweight ground vehicles that are approximately a mile away.” All indications are that Lockheed will continue to develop laser weapons. “As fiber laser power levels increase, our systems will be able to disable larger threats and do so across greater distances. When operated in conjunction with kinetic energy systems, these systems can serve as a force multiplier.”

While laser weaponry still has much potential to improve, the LANCE system is a marked improvement over previous systems. “It’s one-sixth the size of what we produced for the Army going back to just 2017,” Griffin said, in reference to the Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI). RELI was a program to improve high-power electric lasers, making them viable military weapons. LANCE improves upon the work of RELI. The RELI laser had an output in the 60-kilowatt class. “We don’t yet know what kind of power LANCE can produce although there have been suggestions it will likely be below 100 kilowatts,” Thomas Newdick wrote for The War Zone.  

Next-Generation Lasers Are a Step Toward Adoption

LANCE, which stands for “Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments,” comes from a contract Lockheed received in 2017, as part of the USAF’s Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program. SHiELD has three components. One is Lockheed’s LANCE laser. Two is Northrop Grumman’s beam control system, which paints LANCE on its target. Three is Boeing’s pod subsystem, which mounts LANCE – and the beam control system – to the underside of an aircraft.

Kent Wood, the director of the Air Force Research Lab’s directed energy directorate, told Breaking Defense that the components of SHiELD “represent the most compact and capable laser weapon technologies delivered to date. Mission utility analyses and wargaming studies are ongoing, and will help determine how these subsystems and/or an integrated laser weapon system might potentially be used. Specific targets for future tests and demonstrations will be determined by the results of these studies as well.” 

The USAF has not yet fired LANCE. The next step, actually, will not be firing the weapon but pairing LANCE with a thermal system, which regulates LANCE’s heating and cooling. When the weapon will be fired remains unclear. Though clearly LANCE – and lasers on airplanes – is a longer-term project. Lockheed hopes that in the short-term, the SHiELD product can be used as a defensive measure, allowing fighters to shoot down incoming anti-aircraft missiles. An offensive laser, however, “would have to hit harder and at longer distances, so it’s a more distant goal: Such weapons are envisioned for a future “sixth-generation” fighter – like the NGAD prototype,” Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. wrote for Breaking Defense.

 

LANCE Laser

Lockheed Martin demo video of the laser system. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin video screenshot.

At present, we don’t know which airframes LANCE will be mounted to. Lockheed concept art depicted the system attached to an F-16, but speculation holds that LANCE will be adapted for use with a variety of aircraft, including combat support aircraft.  

What seems clear is that the Pentagon – and weapons developers – view laser weapons on airplanes as an entirely feasible, perhaps inevitable, system. Stay tuned.

Harrison Kass is the Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.

Written By

Harrison Kass is a Senior Defense Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison has degrees from Lake Forest College, the University of Oregon School of Law, and New York University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. He lives in Oregon and regularly listens to Dokken.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Ghost Tomahawk

    July 13, 2022 at 2:35 pm

    On planes? How will this laser be powered? We have a long way to go and handing out these contracts to establishment defense contractors is an over budget boondoggle just waiting to be canceled. Time to open up these kinds of things to other groups. Not the typical industrial military complex thieves that have soaked up trillions in tax money for decades.

    • Ace

      July 14, 2022 at 2:23 pm

      Not to mention that the Chinese will steal it a week after its production ready

  2. Tomb

    July 13, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    2nd the above question, how will this ever be powered ?
    Also, what about rain, snow or fog ?

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    July 13, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    Laser weapons are the only thing that can potentially save Armored vehicles, Surface ships, and non-stealthy aircraft from obsolescence.

    Unfortunately for those weapon systems, smart weapons are already here, and Laser defenses are still many years away. Laser defenses will also have to be price competitive with smart weapons which will continue to improve in Reliability, Weight, and Price.

  4. Zero

    July 13, 2022 at 9:58 pm

    Lasers can be especially useful at higher altitudes–above the weather which might interfere with its beam. Newer versions of the F-35, and the coming NGAD systems will have AETP engines with vastly improved thermal management, enabling more powerful lasers. The extra thrust in the engine can also produce a considerable amount of electricity to power the laser.

    Arming refueling tankers and expensive reconnaissance drones with defensive lasers will be invaluable, since these aircraft are often easy to spot, slow–and vulnerable to missiles.

    Lasers will always have limitations, but they will also have incredible strengths–like an unlimited magazine–which is only limited by your fuel. The cost per shot allows lasers to inexpensively shoot down cheap drones which are currently only shot down by missiles which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars each. It also provides a solution to drone swarms. (with Microwave DE also) Lasers instantly hit targets at the speed of light, and have a number of varied effects depending upon the power set on the laser.

    At China Lake a few years ago, a small 30 KW laser easily shot down missiles, mortars, and artillery rounds — for a few dollars per shot. The tech has improved, and power levels are steadily and incrementally increasing. One day, nuclear powered subs and aircraft carriers will have megawatt lasers, since these vessels have access to immense amounts of electrical power.

  5. Herpty derpty

    July 14, 2022 at 7:56 am

    Every one of his article, has “it can brake all the rules, or it broke all the rules” crying out loud. Stop saying it.
    Please for the love of anyone reading your shit

  6. Matt Musson

    July 14, 2022 at 8:23 am

    The Global Shortage of Neon gas (70% came from Ukraine) may shutdown lasers everywhere. Not only will these lasers be impossible to deploy, the lasers that create highend computer chips will go dark as well.

  7. Fiasco Joe

    July 14, 2022 at 8:27 am

    I hope Brandon doesn’t give it to the Taliban.

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