The U.S. Air Force will conduct summer tests of laser weapons, which will be mounted on fighter jets and could be used to destroy drones and missiles.
“We have got tests starting this summer and the flight tests next summer,” Jeff Stanley, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering, told the press. “There are still some technical challenges that we have to overcome, mainly size, weight, power.”
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The test is part of the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator—or SHiELD—project, being conducted by the Pentagon with global security and aerospace firm Lockheed Martin. In 2017, the U.S. military awarded the company a $26 million contract for the program, which aims to produce a fighter-compatible laser weapon for Air Force use by 2021.
The weapon will eventually be integrated with a pod to power and cool the laser and a beam-control system to target the laser beam.
The Air Force wants to use the SHiELD weapon on its fifth generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fighter jets. It is also considering its use in bomber aircraft still under development, such as the B-21 Raider.
The weapon is being developed to better protect American warplanes against ground-to-air and air-to-air missiles, and could also be used offensively to take down drones and cruise missiles mid-flight.
The U.S. military has been developing a range of laser options to be mounted on planes, warships and ground vehicles. Invisible to the naked eye, laser beams can destroy targets such as enemy vehicles or weapons by causing parts to overheat and explode. Laser beams can also disrupt sensors and navigation, blinding enemy forces.
Some of the major challenges to practical use of such systems are their size and weight. Thus far, Navy ships have been most suited to field tests of the technology. The USS Ponce amphibious transport ship was fitted with a 30-kilowatt laser weapon in 2014 that was able to take down test drones and destroy ordinance.
Northrop Grumman has now been awarded a $21.5 million Navy contract to continue development of the USS Ponce prototype, and it is working on a more powerful laser that can be used to disable or destroy enemy ships, unmanned aerial vehicles or surveillance sensors.
The U.S. Army is currently preparing to test a 60-kilowatt Lockheed Martin laser, which can be mounted on ground vehicles.
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