US decided to arm its fighter jets with combat laser, but tests are postponed

WASHINGTON, (BM) – The long-planned trials of airborne laser weapons aboard the US Air Force fighter were postponed until 2023 due to technical problems and complications caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, learned

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According to the Air Force’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator program (SHiELD), the first test of an air-based combat laser on board a fighter was planned in 2021. However, it’s now shifted two years “to the right,” said Jeff Heggemayer, director of the SHiELD program at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“This is a truly sophisticated technology that needs to be integrated into an aircraft. Ultimately, this is exactly what we are trying to do with this program to demonstrate that laser technologies are sufficiently developed to integrate into the platform of a fighter aircraft,” he said.

“But things like COVID-19 are undermining the economy.” And this has a significant impact on our plans,” added Jeff Heggemayer.

The future of using laser weapons aboard fighter aircraft is still very unclear. The goal of the SHIELD program is to give combat aircraft the ability to defend against guided missiles launched by enemy aircraft or air defense systems on the ground. But in May, US Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Development, Mike Griffin, noted that he was “extremely skeptical” that an air-based laser could be used for such missile defense.

When asked what this means in practice for the SHiELD program, US Air Force Under Secretary for Procurement Will Roper admitted that his service is currently rethinking how to best use directed energy technologies. “Perhaps the most optimal implementation of the SHiELD program does not at all mean placing a laser on board a fighter,” he said.

“I told the development team – we’ll start a dialogue,” Roper said on June 9 at an event organized by the Institute of Aerospace Research. Mitchell.

“First you need to understand the different power levels and what they should correspond to, and let’s not strive to create the highest power level that we can only dream about at this stage,” added Will Roper.

“What I expect is to make laser weapons quite operational at this stage. For example, so that it becomes a real threat to small unmanned aerial vehicles. In some cases, UAVs are difficult to identify, we sometimes don’t know who sends them, and we cannot use expensive anti-aircraft guided missiles to destroy them. So a large-scale threat from unmanned aerial vehicles can make laser weapons a very real thing, and as soon as this happens, we will move on to what the military usually does, that is, we will strive to scale power,” explained Will Roper.

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In turn, Jeff Heggemayer said that there are many ways in which the U.S. Air Force could highlight the laser technology developed as part of the SHiELD program, but it is very important that such developments continue and that it is possible to assess the maturity and usefulness of the opportunities that open up.

“I think it’s important to start by recalling what the meaning of SHiELD is. It does not come down to the procurement of any specific weapons. For these purposes, we produce dozens or hundreds of laser systems for operational use. What we are trying to do with SHiELD is to accurately answer the following questions – are the laser technologies mature enough to function on the platform of a fighter plane? Have we solved those technical problems so that now it is possible? ” – explained Jeff Heggemayer.

He also highlighted the difference between the SHiELD laser’s self-defense capabilities of a aircraft and a more powerful laser capable of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missile warheads, as the United States Missile Defense Agency suggests.

“We are not talking about these very, very large ranges of combat use of laser weapons. We talk about a shorter range and other tasks, primarily in order to protect the fighter plane itself or its wingman,” said Heggemayer. According to him, “defense against enemy missiles can mean a lot. Some of these tasks are very, very difficult, and some are not so difficult. ”

So far, at least, the US Air Force’s investment in directed energy has remained stable. For high-energy lasers, funds are allocated in several areas of financing.

For example, in fiscal year 2021, $ 15.1 million and $ 45.1 million were requested for applied research in the field of high-energy laser technologies, and another $ 13 million is supposed to be spent on powerful solid-state laser technologies. In fiscal 2020 in the field of laser technology, $ 14.8 million and $ 48.2 million for applied research were allocated for basic research.

Specifically, the SHiELD program provides for the development of three elements: the laser itself, which is developed by Lockheed Martin Corporation, the beam control system manufactured by Northrop Grumman, and the developer of the installation as a whole and system integrator is Boeing Corporation.

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Heggemayer also said that the installation itself is under development, and the integration of the laser and the beam control system is planned to begin next year.

“The big difficulty is that putting all these things together in a relatively small installation. However, if you look at other laser installations, and we have systems created by other contractors, then they are already quite mature and ready for deployment,” he said.

In particular, in April 2019, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory conducted ground tests of the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS), which is currently used by the U.S. Army. During the tests, several air-to-air missiles were successfully hit.

“It turns out that the DLWS system, if all circumstances are taken into account, is a really good option for a laser of the appropriate power as part of the SHiELD program,” said Heggemayer.

Since both SHiELD and DLWS generate approximately the same amount of energy per target, and in the case of SHiELD, Jeff Heggemayer only said that it is “tens of kilowatts”. This test gave the Air Force Research Laboratory very comprehensive data on how the laser physically affects the target.

In 2019, in the framework of SHiELD, flight tests of a laser installation with the same dimensions as determined by Boeing were conducted.

The system was installed on an airplane (Heggemayer refused to indicate the model) and flew around the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to measure how vibration, gravity, and other environmental factors could affect weapon performance.

Air Force Magazine announced in 2019 that SHiELD air demonstrations would take place aboard the F-15 fighter.

As previously wrote, the US Air Force Research Laboratory has been working on aviation laser weapons for quite some time. One of the problems associated with this, of course, is the need to condense and transport an effective amount of mobile electricity.

Great progress has already been made in this area, and the final plan is to equip fighters with air-to-air and air-to-ground lasers.

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In the meantime, as another step towards this ultimate goal, the US Air Force is planning to first use military transport aircraft with laser weapons, because they are better suited to accommodate the larger weight and volume components of such weapons.

Form factors (standards that set the dimensions and other parameters of a technical product) are not miniature enough to the point that sufficiently powerful lasers can be placed on fighter planes today, since power systems must be mobile and lightweight, but very powerful. Thus, military transport aircraft can serve as an intermediate step for deploying laser weapons on aircraft.

Work on laser weapons is persistently conducted in other types of US armed forces. In particular, earlier told how far the naval forces had advanced in this regard. The U.S. Navy intends to get a high-energy laser and an integrated optical dazzler, as well as an associated reconnaissance system in 2021.

As for the US Ground Forces, as earlier wrote, two years ago, the Striker armored combat vehicle equipped with a 5 kW Mobile High-Energy Laser (MEHEL) hit a small UAV at the Grafenver training ground in Germany (land of Bavaria). Thus, the Americans demonstrated to their European allies how effective weapons based on new physical principles are.

In Russia, on December 1, 2018, the Peresvet laser complex took up pilot combat duty. According to media reports, Peresvet is intended for dazzling, not blinding, enemy spacecraft that track the positions of Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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