The Air Force Research Laboratory is forging ahead with a high-energy laser designed to shoot down drones, incoming rockets and mortar rounds and hopes to have a demonstration model ready by 2021, officials say.
The Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator program, or SHiELD, which launched this year, seeks to equip supersonic warplanes, such as the B-1 Lancer, F-35 Lightning and F-22 Raptor, with defensive lasers mounted in external pods.
The Air Force wants a high-energy laser system compact enough to complement the internal cannon and missiles equipped on its fighter jets.
The new system uses a type of optical fiber as the light-emitting material, instead of the neodymium-doped crystals used in conventional solid-state lasers. Since fiber can be coiled, more power can be packed into a compact system.
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"We have shown that a powerful directed energy laser is now sufficiently light-weight, low volume and reliable enough to be deployed on tactical vehicles for defensive applications on land, at sea and in the air," Lockheed Martin laser weapons expert Robert Afzal said in a statement.
The electric-powered laser is significantly more powerful than the chemical laser found in the defunct Boeing YAL-1A airborne laser test bed, Afzal said. The YAL-1A was scrapped after 16 years of development in 2011 due to its relatively low power.
"One of the problems with the chemical laser is that first of all they're too big and too heavy -- and you have to carry the chemicals with you," Afzal told CNBC on Friday. "With an electric laser, your platform which is driving, sailing, flying around, usually has a power system that can recharge your battery back. But in a chemical laser, once the chemicals are gone you have to go back to the depot."
The SHiELD program includes a beam control system to direct the laser onto a target, a housing pod mounted on the fighter jet to power and cool the laser and the high-energy laser source itself.
Lockheed Martin also recently demonstrated a laser capable of being based on the ground or at sea for the military.
In September, the company demonstrated its Advanced Test High Energy Asset, or ATHENA, in tests run by the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command at White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
The laser brought down five Outlaw drones.
"The tests at White Sands against aerial targets validated our lethality models and replicated the results we've seen against static targets at our own test range," Keoki Jackson, Lockheed Martin's chief technology officer, said in a statement in September.