Boeing yal-1 airborne laser. Via wikipedia

The Air Force Wants a Laser Cannon for Its Fighters

But the high tech weapons could fizzle

The X-wing fighters from Star Wars seem a little more realistic as the U.S. Air Force looks to mount laser weapons on its aircraft. The Air Force Research Laboratory has put out a request for information entitled “Laser Systems for Future Air Dominance Platforms.”

“The emphasis of this effort is to identify potential laser systems that could be integrated into a platform that will provide air dominance,” the announcement says, adding that the new blasters should be ready some time after 2030.

Three types of laser weapons are being studied:

• Low-power lasers for illuminating, tracking, targeting and defeating enemy sensors

• Moderate-power laser protective weapons system, presumably meaning defensive beams for destroying incoming missiles at the last second

• High-powered laser weapons systems, presumably for targeting enemy aircraft and missiles at long range

Unfortunately, the request for information advises potential respondents to contact AFRL for physical characteristics of the weapons—so we’re not sure what specs the Air Force has in mind.

But two details can be gleaned. First, the Air Force wants lasers fairly soon, with systems that can be laboratory-ready by October 2014, with testing out in the real world by 2022.

Second, AFRL states that “laser and beam control systems are being investigated independent of platform in the flight regime from altitudes sea level to 65,000 feet and speeds from Mach 0.6 to 2.5.”

It just so happens that 65,000 feet is the maximum ceiling of an F-22, while the F-35 can reach 60,000 feet, as can the Reaper and Global Hawk drones. This suggests the laser weapons are meant for current and future stealth fighters and perhaps even high-altitude robots.

Thanks to Star Wars and Star Trek, lasers are considered cool. But the Air Force's record on laser weapons does not exactly inspire confidence.

Notable is the YAL-1 Airborne Laser, a 747 fitted with a giant oxygen-iodine chemical laser gun and meant to shoot down ballistic missiles. The Pentagon spent $5 billion trying to make the flying blaster work.

The Missile Defense Agency claimed the Airborne Laser shot down missiles during tests. But the controversial program was itself shot down in 2010 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who stated that a beam 20 to 30 times more powerful would be needed to actually destroy a missile in combat.

YAL-1 targets a ballistic missile in a test. Defense Department photo

And the blaster-armed 747 was finicky as Hell. “In order to operate from a forward location the aircraft will require a forward-based chemical facility for replenishment of the chemicals that fuel the high-energy laser,” noted a 2004 Government Accountability Office report on the YAL-1. “Without these facilities, the Airborne Laser is capable of performing three constrained missions." Our emphasis.

Still, when it comes to energy weapons, hope springs eternal—whether the system in question is a death ray from World War II or Pres. Ronald Reagan's Star Wars missile-defense program.

But it’s one thing to blind enemy sensors with lasers. A dogfight is something else. As impressive as a laser weapon seems, can it remain focused on a fast-moving target such as a missile or combat jet—especially when it’s being fired from an F-22 that itself might be maneuvering violently to avoid enemy fire?

Does the technology exist now to start work on an affordable laser small enough to be carried on a fighter jet?

Nonetheless, there is definitely a trend here. The fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently awarded two contracts for pod-mounted lasers to protect manned aircraft and drones from electro-optical and infrared missiles. And Lockheed Martin has demonstrated a ground-based system to destroy artillery rockets.

Maybe lasers are the future. But how long we’ll have to wait, and how much we’ll have to spend, are the questions.

You can follow Michael Peck on Twitter at @Mipeck1 or on Facebook. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.