The United States Air Force (USAF) has all the tools in the box when it comes to competing with other armed forces due to the abundance of modern-day fighters, tanks, drones, missiles, and other state of art equipment in its arsenal.
Just recently, the Pentagon secretly tested a prototype for its sixth-generation fighter under the NGAD program, with the future fighter said to be equipped with never been seen before state-of-the-art features at the heart of which stands artificial intelligence, radio-photonic radars, and laser weapons.
However, with the next-generation fighters not arriving anytime before the end of the 2020s or mid-2030s, for the time being, the US Air Force has turned its attention to equipping the current crop of its fighters with sixth-gen features like laser weapons.
In a bid to protect its aircraft from incoming missiles, the Air Force has planned to bank on the country’s prime defense contractor’s SHIELD laser system, which will be a pod-mounted laser system.
Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator or SHIELD has been developed by aerospace juggernauts Lockheed Martin on behalf of the Air Force Research Laboratory, with the lasers mounted on the fuselage or wing of the aircraft so as to strike down air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.
Mark Stephen, a laser expert at Lockheed Martin, while speaking to reporters said –
“Lockheed Martin is working to fly a laser on tactical fighters within the next five years,”
We’re spending a lot of time to get the beam director right.”
Most fighter jets in the ranks of nations are limited to passive defense mechanisms against a potential missile attack from enemy forces.
The fighters in a bid to evade attacks can either fly outside the missile’s sensor arc, launch flares to distract an infrared missile seeker, or confuse the missile guider by spreading strips of aluminum foil, known as “chaff”.
The pod-mounted lasers should equip the fighters with an effective means to take down threats.
However, according to Kyle Mizokami, writing for Popular Mechanics, unlike modern-day fighters which rely on stealth, The SHIELD pod will be arranged for the non-stealthy fourth-generation fighters like the F-16s.
“SHiELD will likely go on fighters unable to hide from their adversaries, such as the Air Force’s F-15E, F-15C, and new F-15EX Eagle fighters, F-16 Fighting Falcons, and perhaps even A-10C Warthog attack jets. Trading the ability to carry one more missile or bomb for a laser that could shoot down many incoming missiles is a no-brainer.”
Moreover, while the lasers could be fitted onto a fifth-generation fighter, it will probably be placed in a space meant for bombs, missiles, or sensor pods, which will be bad news for stealthy fighter jets.
“That makes it a bad fit for stealthy aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor or F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as the pod will break up the plane’s carefully minimized radar signature. That said, both planes already have a missile defense system already built-in: stealth technology,” writes Mizokami.
In the future, with further technological advancements, the fighter’s laser systems, chaff and flares defenses could be controlled through artificial intelligence (AI), thereby leaving the pilot to focus on other tasks of the mission.
However, according to defense analyst, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr, there are a set of challenges that such features will have to overcome in order to become highly effective in aerial combat.
“Now, it’s easy for discussions of laser weapons to boil down to counting kilowatts, and power output are important – but so is precision. Sure, more power lets you do more damage, more quickly, at longer ranges. But you have to actually hit the target first,”
And that’s especially hard because most laser weapons in development, like SHIELD and IFPC – HEL (Indirect Fire Protection Capability – High Energy Laser), are intended to defeat fast-moving threats like rockets, missiles, and drones.”