We may not live in a Star Wars-esque age of light speed travel and Death Stars, but that isn’t stopping the US military from turning its jet fighters into laser-firing weapons from the future. The Air Force Research Laboratory just dropped a cool $26.3 million on a contract with Lockheed Martin to develop a system by which highly mobile jet fighters can be equipped with laser weapons to shoot enemies and incoming threats right out of the sky.
Lasers developed for use as weapons aren’t a completely new concept, as various military contractors have already demonstrated the ability to build powerful lasers that can track and destroy both ground-based and airborne targets. However, the systems are typically large and cumbersome, and shrinking the tech to the point that it could feasibly work on a jet is an incredibly challenging task.
Lockheed Martin is focusing on fiber laser technology for its development of the airborne laser weapons, utilizing a technique it calls “spectral beam combining” to fuse the outputs of as many as 100 different lasers into a single, powerful beam. This technique actually consumes less power but still produces a suitable beam that can be fired for long distances.
But before you go dreaming of a jet that fires bright red beams of destructive energy as its foes, you should know that these lasers aren’t like the ones you see in sci-fi movies. In fact, the lasers are completely invisible to the naked eye, and you’ll only know they’ve been used when you see the destructive results.
The focus on laser weapons has two main goals for the US military, and it’s not just about offensive strikes. Yes, the idea of high-altitude laser dogfighting is most definitely in the cards, and the AFRL wants to be able to control the lasers in such a way as to be used offensively, but defense is just as important. It’s hoped that laser-equipped jets could also use the powerful beams to shoot incoming threats like missiles out of the sky before they can impact the aircraft, keeping pilots safe.
The technology still has a long way to go before it’s ready to even be shown off, and potentially many years before it would be used by any branch of the military, but the future is closer than you might think. Tests of the technology are currently slated for 2021.