Incinerating enemy drones from the air, burning holes through enemy combat vehicles on the ground, or simply destroying an enemy fighter jet in a dogfight are all things laser-armed fighter jets may soon be capable of.
How soon will F-35, F-22, and F-15 attack enemies with mounted laser weapons?
The U.S. Air Force is refining its combat strategy, tactics, and concepts of operation to accommodate the rapid emergence of laser weapons, technologies that promise to alter the landscape of modern warfare and substantially expand the envelope of attack possibilities for fighter jets.
The service anticipates having aircraft and fighter jet-fired lasers in operation sometime in the next several years, as mobile power systems and other integral technologies continue to evolve rapidly. Not only do laser weapons bring increased precision attacks at the speed of light to incinerate targets, but they can be scaled or adjusted to achieve a desired effect – such as total destruction, partial damage, or an even smaller, more measured impact, depending upon the threat.
The Air Force Research Lab, which leads an effort from Kirtland Air Force Base, has been working on laser weapons development for many years. They have already conducted several ground-fire tests and have also been pursuing air-launched demonstrations.
A previous AFRL report discusses efforts to test fire a fighter-jet configured laser pod from the ground, in anticipation of airborne integration. Following ground tests, one thing AFRL developers have discussed is that air-fired laser weapons might first be fired from larger aircraft such as C-130 Cargo planes before sources of on-board, mobile expeditionary power can be further miniaturized to fire from smaller, faster fighter jets.
Two major AFRL programs explored in recent years include an air-to-air weapons program called the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD) and a ground-fired Demonstrator Laser Weapon System. AFRL has been working with Lockheed Martin on SHIELD in anticipation of having operational lasers within the next few years.
Solid-state laser weapons rely purely upon electricity and do not need to draw upon certain specific chemicals as other lasers do. Essentially, they can disable or, if needed, incinerate a target with tremendous heat.
Fighter Jet Lasers Bring New Tactics
Given the advent of laser weapons, fighter pilots are preparing for new tactical possibilities, such as the ability to attack multiple targets at once and rapidly retarget, Air Force Research Laboratory papers explain. While current fighters, such as the F-35, are able to launch simultaneous air-to-air attacks on enemy targets such as planes and drones, pilots preparing to fire lasers will have an even greater ability to engage multiple targets concurrently.
This, among other things, will enable fighter jets to engage in close combat in higher-risk scenarios where they might encounter multiple enemy aircraft. Perhaps of greatest significance, laser weapons are entirely scalable. Scalability is achieved in many instances by combining or merging several beams into one, AFRL states.
An attack option such as lasers might give pilots the ability to degrade rather than destroy targets, a possibility potentially not afforded by conventional weapons such as air-to-air or air-to-ground missiles and bombs. Perhaps, for instance, an aircraft might wish to disable an enemy asset such as a plane, vehicle, or enemy fixture of some kind without killing people, should civilians be in close proximity.
As developers advance the miniaturization of power storage, onboard power systems, fighters, and cargo aircraft will increasingly operate with the ability to carry a “deep magazine” without adding large amounts of weight to a plane. This brings a number of distinct advantages, such as greater fuel efficiency, speed, and maneuverability. A transportable arsenal of laser weapons might remove the need for a fighter jet to travel with large amounts of heavy bombs and missiles, allowing the aircraft to operate with increased air-to-air maneuverability and extended mission time.
A lighter-weight aircraft, naturally, will have increased “dwell” time to seek emerging targets by virtue of not having to refuel as often. As something able to operate with a decreased “logistical footprint,” a laser-armed fighter jet may also operate for longer periods of time without needing to re-arm, generating yet another avenue through which to extend missions.
“For a 30 kW laser system, the batteries could weigh on the order of 300 pounds and fit within a volume of half of a cubic meter,” the AFRL report states.
All of this means pilots and ground weapons operators will need to employ new tactics and concepts of operation as they prepare for longer, faster missions and prepare for the ability to launch scalable attacks. Laser power is increased, AFRL developers explain, by use of a two-color fiber amplifier.
Challenges with Lasers
Alongside these known advantages, laser weapons development also faces a number of substantial hurdles as these weapons come closer to operational status, according to AFRL information. Not only do laser weapons need to be further ruggedized for war, but various “beam controls” need to be integrated to optimize precision and preclude the impact of “aero-mechanical jitter.”
“Beam control systems must be adequately advanced so as to enable precise aiming, tracking, and pointing amidst the aero-mechanical jitter induced by vibrations during flight,” an AFRL paper states.
If system “weight and heat” are properly managed, there will be much less beam attenuation or dispersion of the laser impact.
“High-speed aerodynamic flow must be mitigated to avoid aero-optical disturbances,” AFRL data state. “Effective thermal management systems can drastically increase the rate of fire, either through traditional liquid cooling loops or through two-phase cooling, wherein heat is transferred to and melts a solid, the resulting liquid of which is then cooled.”
Defensive laser weapons are offering great promise to the U.S. military as well. Given that lasers can also perform a sensor function, they might be able to acquire and knock out an incoming enemy missile. They could operate as “interceptors” traveling at the speed of light, offering a quick way to destroy enemy attacks, which could include anti-ship missiles, air-to-air missiles, and even space-based weapons such as ICBMs. This is attractive to weapons developers for tactical and financial reasons, as lasers are extremely low-cost to fire and could be equally effective against an incoming attack as compared to an expensive interceptor missile
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. 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.