China has announced plans to equip its J-20 stealth fighter with laser weapons, a move that would significantly enhance its air-to-air prowess and even possibly give it defense capabilities against hypersonic weapons.
Laser weapons offer several advantages over projectile ones, including instantaneous hits, pinpoint targeting and scalable power depending on mission requirements. Although they have a high initial cost, they are cost-efficient once established, with negligible costs per shot. The drawbacks, however, include massive power requirements, decreasing power with distance and sensitivity to atmospheric conditions.
In an interview on China Central Television (CCTV), Chinese military expert Wang Mingliang mentioned that the J-20 could in the future be equipped with directed energy weapons such as lasers, optionally-manned capability and the ability to command drone swarms.
In 2020, China’s military announced its requirement for an airborne laser attack pod, which can be used to shoot down enemy aircraft or incoming ballistic missiles. If it had been a device to only guide precision-guided weapons (PGMs) to their targets, it would have been designated as a laser guidance pod.
China is known to have developed laser weapons since the 1990s, starting with the ZM-87, which was first unveiled in 1995. It is designed to inflict permanent eye damage against enemy personnel within two to four kilometers and cause temporary blindness up to nine kilometers.
Other Chinese laser weapons include the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle, which can hit targets up to a kilometer away, cause instantaneous burns and ignite flammable targets, and the LW-30, which is a laser-based air defense system.
Russia started its airborne laser weapons program in the 1970s, with plans to use an aircraft-mounted laser as an anti-satellite weapon. Tests with a modified Beriev A-60 aircraft began in 1981, and after a long delay, the project was revived in 2003 under the name Sokol-Eshelon. From this, the 1LK222 laser system was developed for the A-60, for which tests began back in 2009.
The A-60 project is currently undergoing a deep modernization process. In 2016, former Russian deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov stated in an interview that work to improve the A-60’s tactical and technical aspects was underway, and that ground and flight tests of the weapon were ongoing.
Russia has also developed the SLK 1K11 Stiletto, Sanguine and 1K17 Szhatiye land-based laser weapons, as well as the Aquilion ship-based laser weapon in the 1980s. They were intended to blind enemy electro-optical systems, as laser technology at the time was not powerful enough to destroy targets. As with the A-60, Russia could resume development of these prototypes should funding permit.
The US has fielded the YAL 1A Airborne Laser, with the weapon’s first tests taking place in 2002. The device is mounted on a modified Boeing 747-400F and was designed to shoot down tactical ballistic missiles in their powered boost flight phase.
In 2011, however, the program was canceled due to cost overruns and design limitations. The YAL 1A laser required bulky equipment and massive amounts of power to shoot over hundreds of kilometers while overcoming the distorting effect of the atmosphere. Ultimately, the design was judged to be non-viable, and the prototype was scrapped in 2014.
Despite that, the US is re-exploring the concept of airborne laser weapons. Lockheed Martin has been working on its Tactical Airborne Laser System project which had aimed to mount a laser weapon on a fighter jet in 2021 but has now been delayed to 2023 due to technical problems. It is designed to shoot down incoming missiles including air-to-air and surface-to-air projectiles.
Concept art released by Lockheed Martin shows a much smaller system than the YAL 1A, which in turn allows for more dispersed, flexible employment and lower power requirements. To power the laser, a set of batteries or capacitors charged by the fighter’s engine will be used.
The fast emergence of hypersonic weapons may be the real reason why China, the US and Russia are revisiting their laser weapons programs. Hypersonic weapons fly at speeds of Mach 5 or faster to evade current and planned missile defenses.
Current missile-based systems, such as the US Patriot PAC-3 or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), may be ineffective against hypersonic threats, and the high cost of each interceptor missile makes them potentially unfeasible long-term options.
Laser weapons mounted on optionally manned fighter jets may thus be better defensive options than missile-based systems due to their instantaneous hit capability and negligible cost per shot. They also avoid the huge power requirements of land-based lasers and provide tactical and operational flexibility by being mounted on mobile platforms.