Washington: Leading American weapon manufacturer Lockheed Martin “is working to fly a laser on tactical fighters within the next five years,” company laser expert Mark Stephen told reporters. “We’re spending a lot of time to get the beam director right.”
That beam director, which keeps the laser beam on target, is a crucial but easily overlooked component of future laser weapons.
The Air Force Research Lab’s SHiELD program aims to put defensive laser pod on fighters to defend them against incoming anti-aircraft missiles. An offensive laser to shoot down enemy aircraft 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 now in flight test — to follow the fifth-gen F-35, while the SHiELD pod will go on non-stealthy fourth gen aircraft like the F-16.
But the company’s new beam-director design is actually getting its first workout on an Army system, the truck-mounted IFPC Energy Laser, which will defend against artillery rockets, drones, and potentially, subsonic cruise missiles.
The first unit of IFPC-HEL prototypes, already under construction, will be operational in 2024. That’s a year ahead of Lockheed’s timeline to put a laser on a fighter. And the fighter-pod project isn’t trying to field an operational prototype, either; It’s just trying to demonstrate the technology can actually work, with a formal requirements document and acquisition program of record to follow in the mid-2020s, when the Army plans to already have IFPC-HEL in mass production.