The goal of the SHiELD laser weapon was to give combat jets a way to counter missiles shot by an enemy aircraft or by air defense systems on the ground. Credit: US Army.

The US Air Force’s highly touted SHiELD airborne laser weapon has hit yet another setback, raising questions about the program’s long-term viability.

Due to “technical challenges” and the complications of the coronavirus pandemic, program head Jeff Heggemeier said the planned test of the fighter jet weapon has been delayed until 2023, reported Valerie Insinna of Defense News.

The Air Force’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator program, or SHiELD, had originally planned to conduct its first flight demonstration in 2021, said Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“This is a really complex technology to try to integrate into that flight environment, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do with this program, is demonstrate that laser technology is mature enough to be able to integrate onto that airborne platform,” he told Defense News in a June 10 interview.

Air Force Magazine reported in 2019 that aerial demonstrations of SHiELD would occur onboard an F-15 fighter jet.

Beyond that, the future of using laser weapons aboard fighter aircraft is even more unclear, Defense News reported.

The goal of SHiELD was to give combat jets a way to counter missiles shot by an enemy aircraft or by air defense systems on the ground. But in May, Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, noted that he was “extremely skeptical” that an airborne laser could be used for missile defense.

Asked what that meant for SHiELD, Air Force acquisition czar Will Roper acknowledged that the service is rethinking how it could best use directed-energy technologies. Perhaps the most optimal use for SHiELD wasn’t onboard a fighter, he said.

“What I’ve told that team is, let’s have a dialogue,” Roper said during a June 9 event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Defense News reported.

Officials say there are many ways the Air Force could spin off laser technologies developed by the SHiELD program. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

“Let’s understand the different power levels and what they should correspond to, and let’s not make the highest power level that we can dream up and the mission that’s the sexiest be the thing that drives us.”

Heggemeier said there are many ways the Air Force could spin off laser technologies developed by the SHiELD program, but it’s critical the service continue with development so it can gauge the maturity and usefulness of the capabilities, Defense News reported.

“What we’re trying to do with SHiELD is exactly answer those questions of: ‘Is laser technology mature enough to go on an airborne platform? Have we solved enough of those technical challenges that this is now a feasible thing?’ Because there is that concern.”

He also drew a distinction between the tactical, self-defense capability a SHiELD laser would give combat aircraft versus a more powerful laser capable of intercepting highly-advanced ballistic missiles, as the Missile Defense Agency has proposed.

“You’re not talking about these really, really long ranges. You’re talking about a shorter range and different targets just to protect yourself or your wingman,” Heggemeier said.

SHiELD is comprised of three elements: the laser itself, which is being developed by Lockheed Martin; the beam control system made by Northrop Grumman; and the pod that encases the weapons system, from Boeing.

Heggemeier said the pod is under construction, with integration of the laser and beam control system planned to start next year, Defense News reported.

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