Agents of SHiELD: the US Air Force’s aircraft-mounted laser weapon

The US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) recently awarded Lockheed Martin a $26.3m contract to design, develop and produce an aircraft-mounted high-power fibre laser. It forms one part of the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) programme, which aims to demonstrate the ability of an airborne protective laser system by 2021. Berenice Baker speaks to Lockheed Martin about the significance of the programme. 

Developing a compact, high-efficiency laser that can be used on a tactical fighter jet presents new challenges in terms of size, weight and power constraints compared with the land systems that have been effectively demonstrated in recent years. As such, the AFRL has divided its SHiELD programme into three subsystems and allocated each to a different defence technology specialist.

For its part, Lockheed Martin is developing the high energy laser itself, known as Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE), which can be trained on enemy targets to disable them.

Northrop Grumman is responsible for SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE), the beam control system which will direct the laser onto the target. Boeing is developing Laser Pod Research & Development (LPRD), the pod that will attach the laser to the aircraft and supply power and cooling.

Jet fighter laser weapons conjure up the image of future air combat looking like a mechanised light sabre battle. However, SHiELD will more prosaically demonstrate that airborne laser technology that can disable UAVs and weapons in flight are mature enough to embed in an aircraft.

We talked to Dr Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems Lockheed Martin, about LANCE and how the company will draw on its 40 years of experience with laser technology to take it skywards.

Berenice Baker: What targets would this type of aircraft-mounted laser weapon be used against, and what would it do better than current weapons systems?

Dr Rob Afzal: While we can’t address specific types of threats, we can say the air force has confirmed LANCE will be used for testing self-defence against air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons. We see great promise for laser weapon systems as a compliment to traditional kinetic weapon systems, because lasers offer nearly limitless magazines with an inexpensive cost-per-shot.

Has the USAF given you guidelines on the types of aircraft this type of laser weapon will eventually be mounted on?

This is a question better answered by the USAF.

What kind of power would you expect SHiELD to deliver?

While the exact kilowattage of LANCE, the beam portion of the SHiELD system, is sensitive information, we can say it’s a high power laser. What’s significant about that is that we’ve taken a high power laser and condensed the size enough to fit onto a tactical fighter jet.

High power lasers are typically thought of as in the “tens of kilowatts (kW)” and can take down things like UAVs, and in this case, other incoming anti-aircraft missiles. In 2015, AFRL commander Major General Thomas Masiello stated that SHiELD would be a defensive system with “tens of kilowatts” of power.

Lockheed Martin recently delivered a 60kW-class laser to be installed on a US Army ground vehicle. What are the different challenges when designing for aircraft use?

We’ve reduced the size, weight and power of lasers down to be able to fit onto a podded system on a tactical fighter jet, while maintaining near perfect beam quality.

This advancement, combined with our earlier announcement this year of delivery of our 60kW-class laser to the US Army, show just how much laser technology has matured. This technology is real, and its test and integration into land, air and the many RFIs we’ve seen for naval platforms, too, show how ready the technology is.

The airborne environment is significantly different than the ground-based environment. For instance, the pod will experience significant G-loads and aerodynamics where a ground-based platform will not.

AFRL plans to test the laser on a tactical fighter jet by 2021. What will be your key milestones before then?

Lockheed Martin will follow the standard engineering process. We will first agree on the requirements of the laser, then proceed through a maturation of the design with multiple checkpoints. Once AFRL approves the design, we will proceed to building the laser. We will test it in the lab and in representative environments before delivering it to AFRL for integration with other subsystems in the pod.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are developing other elements of this project. How will you collaborate to ensure all the elements together? At what stage will they be assembled for testing?

LANCE is the last awarded piece of the SHiELD programme, so we’ll use our laser packaging expertise and work with the Air Force Research Lab, Boeing and Northrop Grumman to ensure the most seamless integration possible for the SHiELD system.

How will your RECENT AND ONGOING LASER WEAPON PROJECTS, including ATHENA, ALADIN and RELI help inform this programme?

Lockheed Martin’s internal development of ATHENA and ALADIN, combined with what we’ve learned from customer programmes including RELI [for the US Army] have helped us understand and test lasers in a variety of environments. We’ve been able to focus on developing near-perfect beams, making our beams more efficient, and reducing the size, weight and power of our lasers. LANCE will benefit from what we’ve learned over the course of previous development programmes.

Lockheed Martin has been working on laser weapons systems for 40 years. What have been the critical enablers that are making them a battlespace reality now?

The Department of Defense has been interested in laser weapons from the time we knew they were a possibility, so oftentimes people ask “what’s taking so long?” The truth is that lasers are a complex challenge to solve, and while they’ve been feasible for decades, the size and power required to power previous iterations of laser technology made it unrealistic to field the systems. Today, we’ve seen a shift from chemical lasers to electric ones, and that, plus advancements made with fibre optics in the telecommunications industry, have reduced the size, weight and power required to make lasers. That reduction is what makes lasers a battlefield reality today.

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