USAF Contract to Supply Energy Weapons for Attack Aircraft Goes To Lockheed Martin
Andrew Wheeler posted on December 19, 2017 | 1815 views

News that the United States Air Force (USAF) awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin is unsurprising.

After all, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin make a small fortune from U.S taxpayer-funded government contracts, and together these three companies of the U.S military industrial complex account for 1 percent of the country’s GDP, which in 2017 is estimated to be around USD $18.76 billion.

Laser weapons systems are attractive to militaries around the world because they promise intense accuracy and a relatively limitless supply, compared to bullets and missiles. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)
Laser weapons systems are attractive to militaries around the world because they promise intense accuracy and a relatively limitless supply, compared to bullets and missiles. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)
On July 30, 2012, this Laser Weapon System installed on the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey demonstrated the firepower of the system against aerial targets. It was built by Naval Sea Systems Command Sea Systems Command from a combination of commercial fiber and solid-state lasers, which were hashed out at the Naval Research Laboratory. (Video courtesy of the U.S. Navy.)

The USAF has many projects with many acronyms—this contract for USD $26 million comes from an RFP produced by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and it covers the Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE) component of the massive Self-protect HighEnergy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program.

In 2015, Lockheed Martin released this photo to the press, reporting that it had successfully disabled a truck (propped up on a platform with its engine running) from more than a mile away using its Advanced Test HighEnergy Asset (ATHENA) laser weapon system. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)
In 2015, Lockheed Martin released this photo to the press, reporting that it had successfully disabled a truck (propped up on a platform with its engine running) from more than a mile away using its Advanced Test HighEnergy Asset (ATHENA) laser weapon system. (Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)

To break it down, the USAF’s SHiELD program is the umbrella term for a weapons system that has three subsystems under it:

1.      SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE): This is the beam control system responsible for directing the laser to the target. It is being developed by Northrup Grumman.

2.      Laser Pod Research and Development (LPRD): This is the pod that will be mounted on the tactical fighter jet. Its function is to power and cool the laser.This is being developed by Boeing.

3.      Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE): This is the high-energy laser itself, weaponized to disable and/or destroy enemy targets. It is being developed by Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed has developed a 60-kW-class laser system for installation on ground vehicles, and Raytheon has demonstrated a laser system hitting a ground target from an Apache attack helicopter—but bringing a laser system to highly advanced fighter jets requires a lot more sophistication.

Lockheed Martin’s prototype ATHENA laser weapon tested in August 2017 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico disabling and destroying five Outlaw drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). The Lockheed Martin ATHENA prototype laser weapon system proved that an advanced system of sensors, software and specialized optics can deliver decisive lethality against unmanned aerial vehicle threats. (Video courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)

With a move away from chemical laser weapons (which proved to be too costly and unwieldy), the development of combination solid-state lasers and fiber lasers (which use scalable bundles of fiber optics to concentrate and increase the wattage of lasers) has yielded new possibilities.

With Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin working together to design a turreted laser system for advanced fighter jets like the F-35 family (the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variant, the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing variant and the F-35C carrier variant), a very different set of physical challenges needed to be overcome to make it effective and combat ready. (Video courtesy of Lockheed Martin.)

For Lockheed, the LANCE contract leverages previous technologies like the ATHENA system and others, and the physics of firing lasers at high altitudes and in any kind of weather has immediate and obvious issues.

Lasers are dependent on the quality of air—particles in the air like water in fog or pollution (good luck attacking Beijing) disrupt the quality of the laser. The U.S. Navy and USAF are investigating reflective and heat-dissipating coatings for aircraft—so how effective will Lockheed’s energy weapon be?

Engineers who may work on adding the SHiELD system to any or all the F-35 family of aircraft must find room and energy for the turreted energy weapon system.

The basic design of the F-35B has room near the vertical lift fan, but this space is not available on the F-35A. Engineers may be able to devise and construct a single mount with turrets on the top and bottom of the F-35B because the available space goes through the fuselage.

For the F-35A and F-35C, they would probably have to redesign the positions of the internal fuel tanks to mount turrets on the top and bottom of those aircraft.

Bottom Line

Laser weapons are coming to the battlefield in an age of warfare that promises to incorporate far more autonomous systems. Engineering them to be effective defensive and offensive weapons is a tremendous challenge, but the horizon is approaching.

For example, BAE Systems’ Laser Developed Atmospheric Lens concept is the start of designing and engineering a laser weapon that ionizes a portion of the atmosphere around an aircraft to protect against incoming laser strikes.

That’s right—they’re working on the world’s first deflector shield.


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