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Air Force wants lasers on planes by 2025 – here’s what they will do

The aircraft is a McDonnell Douglas F-15C-35-MC Eagle (US Air Force/Released)
May 27, 2021

The U.S. Air Force is working to put laser pods on its fighter jets that can defeat incoming surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles in mid-air.

Lockheed Martin, one of the core U.S. defense contractors working on the laser defense system has also vowed to get the pod in the air by 2025.

In February, the Air Force received the first major assembly of the three main subsystems of the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) system. SHiELD is intended to be mounted on an aircraft pod to demonstrate defensive capabilities of aircraft against surface-to-air (SAM) and air-to-air (AAM) missiles.

“Over the last five years we have worked side-by-side with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, advancing the technology that would make this system work,” said Dr. Jeff Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager. “To finally have the subsystems in the lab, will be a huge step forward in seeing the system to completion.”

Before it could receive the first SHiELD subsystems, developers had to develop a pod system that could withstand the harsh conditions the laser system would have to endure in flight.

“Imagine the disturbances and stresses – wind speeds, turbulence, and quick aircraft maneuvers that a laser system would have to perform under,” Heggemeier said. “We had to solve those challenges first—and that took time.”

The Air Force has already fielded a SHiELD test-pod on an F-15 in flight and separately shott-down an air-launched missiles using a ground-based system configured to test the laser system’s self-protect aspects.

“Those critical demonstrations show that our directed energy system is on track to be a game changer for our warfighters,” said Dr. Kelly Hammett, director of AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate. “The ability to shoot down missiles in flight, and operate in denied environments, increases the advantage we have over our adversaries.”

Last November, Mark Stephen, business development lead for strategic technology development at Lockheed Martin’s missiles and fire control division told National Defense Magazine, “We’re committing to putting a laser pod equipped with a high-energy laser in the air within five years.”

The Air Force expects SHiELD’s remaining subsystems, the laser system and the beam control system, should be delivered by July. The service plans to assemble all of the components for a full system test in fiscal year 2024.

SHiELD isn’t the only project being developed by the U.S. military to use laser capabilities to protect its forces. Lockheed Martin is also partnered with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy for similar laser systems.

The U.S. Army is developing a 300-kilowatt laser system, the Indirect Fire Precision Capabilities High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) demonstrator, to be mounted on ground vehicles to defeat drones, rockets, artillery and mortars. 

The U.S. Navy is similarly developing High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS), to be fielded destroyers to protect sailors and ships from attacks by drones and small watercraft.