US launches first fighter-mounted laser weapon

(MENAFN-Asia Times)

The US Air Force has just received its first fighter-mounted laser weapon, a military advancement that sounds like a page out of space science fiction.

The Warzone reported this month that US military contractor Lockheed Martin delivered its first airborne laser weapon LANCE (Laser Advancements for Next-Generation Compact Environments) to the US Air Force in February.

Lockheed Martin notes that the LANCE is one-sixth the size of previous laser weapons the company has produced for the US military and has reduced power requirements so it can be mounted in a belly fighter pod.

Although the power output of the LANCE is unknown, The Warzone estimates it to be less than 100 kilowatts. Given LANCE’s estimated power output, it can be deployed as a defensive weapon that works by burning the sensitive air-to-air missile homing heads.

Although LANCE may be strong enough against incoming air-to-air missiles, it may not be sufficient for missile defense purposes, especially against the growing threat of hypersonic weapons from China and Russia.

In the 2016 book Directed Energy Weapons, Bahman Zohuri notes that an air defense laser weapon designed to shoot down aircraft, helicopters and missiles should be in the megawatt range, capable of precisely targeting sensitive components and deliver sustained fire until the target is destroyed.

It’s not yet clear what type of aircraft the LANCE would be mounted on, but concept art from Lockheed Martin shows the weapon positioned on an F-16 fighter. LANCE national interest notes or future weapons of this type can be mounted on F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.

Such weapons could enhance the already formidable air-to-air capabilities of these aircraft, as lasers are faster than any air-to-air missile. The National Interest also mentions that laser weapons can also increase the stealth characteristics of these aircraft, as they could reduce their radar cross section (RCS) if used instead of conventional, easily detectable weapons placed on hardpoints. external.

A 2007 Congressional Research Service report notes that previous US efforts to create an aircraft-mounted laser, the Airborne Laser (ABL) weapon, failed due to size, weight, and beam jitter issues.

An ABL-type weapon was too large for feasible operational deployment, as it took up too much space on ships and aircraft and could hardly be mounted on ground vehicles.

Artist’s rendering of an Air Force F-16 armed with a laser weapon. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The ABL’s six laser modules also ended up heavier than expected, reducing aircraft range and increasing air-to-air refueling requirements, adding stress to the already overstretched American air-to-air refueling fleet. Additionally, the weapon also suffered from beam control jitter due to environmental factors, resulting in loss of laser power to the target. These problems led to the ABL’s early retirement in 2014.

However, recent technological advances in laser technology mean that the concept of an aircraft-mounted laser weapon may have once again become feasible. In a 2020 media interview, Dr. Rob Afzal, Lockheed Martin’s senior researcher of laser and sensor systems, said laser fiber optics and the combination of spectral beams make the miniaturization of laser weapons possible.

He notes that fiber optics were much more efficient at converting electrical energy into laser energy, and that fiber laser devices could be weaponized by increasing their power. Combining spectral beams that concentrates multiple small laser beams into a single powerful beam has also enabled the creation of smaller laser weapons that can be mounted on aircraft, vehicles, and ships.

These technological advances may make the LANCE a feasible tactical laser weapon with significant operational implications. A 2014 study from the Journal of Aerospace Technology and Management notes that aircraft-mounted lasers can provide active defense for aircraft, shooting down incoming air-to-air missiles. Although current technological limitations confine the LANCE to a defensive role, that does not mean it cannot be deployed in offensive roles in the future.

In an offensive role, the study mentions that these lasers can be used against ground targets, especially sensitive and fragile electronic targets such as radio antennas, satellite dishes and power transformers, with minimal collateral damage. .

The lasers could also be used in counterinsurgency operations, targeting insurgents with pinpoint accuracy that could not be achieved with current precision-guided munitions, potentially reducing civilian casualties. The study also notes the increasing miniaturization of laser weapons, which may allow them to be mounted on drones and other unmanned platforms.


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