US Air Force Announces Major Milestone in Laser Pod System

The first major assembly of the laser pod's three main subsystems will take place later this month, with the rest arriving later in the year.
Fabienne Lang
Fighter jets that will have the laser systemLockheed Martin/YouTube

The U.S. Air Force will see its first delivery of major components for a prototype of its future defensive tactical laser weapon arrive later this month, which is set to be fitted onto fighter jets.

The rest of the components will be delivered later this year in July, announced the Air Force Research Laboratory.

This comes as good news as the Air Force Research Laboratory Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator — or SHiELD — program has been working hard at bringing such weapons to life since its inception in 2015.

How the laser weapon system will work

The SHiELD program is developing a laser beam system that will sit externally of aircraft pods, which will demonstrate the defense capabilities of aircraft against air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. 

Boeing recently finished the pod assembly for this directed energy weapon, which is where the laser and beam control systems will reside. 

Lockheed Martin is contracted to develop the laser system, and Northrup Grumman is in charge of the beam control system for the Air Force's next-generation fighters.

The announcement marks a major step towards the integration of the complete system, including laser, pod, and beam control. 

Dr. Jeff Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager said "To finally have the subsystems in the lab will be a huge step forward in seeing the system to completion."

A number of delays since 2015 have meant that everyone's been waiting with bated breath for these laser beam-shooting fighter jet pods. However, it's easy enough to understand why such a massive undertaking would face a number of delays. To name but one technical challenge the teams have had to face: Creating a system that's able to accurately shoot down moving targets flying at Mach speeds.

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On top of that, as Heggemeier pointed out "Imagine the disturbances and stresses; wind speeds, turbulence, and quick aircraft maneuvers that a laser system would have to perform under. We had to solve those challenges first—and that took time."

That said, a number of important milestones were reached by the teams in recent years, for instance when they successfully flew an F-15 jet with an attached laser test pod.

Having the capability of using laser beams to shoot down moving missiles in flight, and in denied environments, as AFRL points out, is the future of fighting. And given it's not only the U.S. Air Force that's set to receive laser beams, but also the U.S. Army, this is clearly something we can expect in coming years.

The full system trial is set to take place in 2024.

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