Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame wanted sharks with lasers. OK, for an evil villain holding the world hostage, we can all understand that. It comes with the territory.
But a tactical fighter jet, with a laser weapon? Does mankind really need this?
Doesn’t the USAF have enough ways to kill opponents, without spending money on projects like this? Thereby hurting other projects, that maybe deserve the funding?
“Lockheed Martin is working to fly a laser on tactical fighters within the next five years,” Lockheed laser expert Mark Stephen told reporters during an interview. “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 component of future laser weapons. Will that issue be solved?
Cue the wheelbarrow with money, Pentagon money.
The problem is, 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 5th-gen F-35, while the SHiELD pod will go on non-stealthy 4th gen aircraft like the F-16, as in this Lockheed video.
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, Breaking Defense reported.
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.
Why the difference in timelines? It is much, much easier to mount a working weapon on a truck than on a fighter jet. For one thing, the truck isn’t moving at hundreds of miles an hour, Breaking Defense reported.
The truck also has a lot more room for power generation and cooling systems than a pod that fits under a fighter. IFPC-HEL will produce 300 kilowatts of power; SHIELD’s output is TBD, but it’ll probably be under 100 kW, allowing the fighter to charge the laser without installing a whole new power generation system.
Now, it’s easy for discussions of laser weapons to boil down to counting kilowatts, and power output is important – but so is precision.
Sure, more power lets you do more damage, more quickly, at longer ranges. But you have to actually hit the target first.
And that’s especially hard because most laser weapons in development, like SHIELD and IFPC, are intended to defeat fast-moving threats like rockets, missiles and drones, Breaking Defense reported.
Then you have to keep hitting the target long enough for the laser beam to heat it up enough to hurt it, even if that’s just a fraction of a second.
Getting the laser precisely on target and keeping it there is the job of the beam director.
Sophisticated software predicts exactly where the beam needs to go and adjusts specially designed mirrors to bounce the laser light in just the right direction. And the beam director has to keep making those calculations and adjustments many times a second.
Can you really achieve this kind of precision from an aircraft in flight, which is not only flying at hundreds of miles an hour but vibrating?
Lockheed’s been doing it for decades, Stephen claimed.
“It has lasers inside of it that have to be maintained onto a target during high-speed maneuvers,” Stephen said. “They’re laser designators, not weapon-class lasers,” he acknowledged, but that’s a difference in power level, not precision.