on April 23, 2019, the Air Force Research Laboratory has announced successfully shot down multiple missiles with a laser weapon that could eventually defend fighters and other aircraft against existing and emerging missile threats.
The Self-Protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program is developing a directed energy laser system on an aircraft pod that will serve to demonstrate self-defence of aircraft against surface-to-air (SAM) and air-to-air (AAM) missiles.
A Lockheed Martin test pilot recently told an audience that America’s sixth-generation fighter could be armed with directed-energy weapons, according to USNI News. Lockheed is one of three defense contractors involved in the SHiELD program, according to Air Force Magazine.
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) conducted the test at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, together with defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which is developing the laser.
Lockheed Martin first received the contract to build the directed energy weapon in 2017 as part of AFRL’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) program.
The laser component, or Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE), is just one part of the SHiELD effort. Work on a turreted mount and a self-contained pod to attach the complete system to a fighter jet-sized aircraft are separate as part of the SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE) and Laser Pod Research & Development (LPRD) projects, respectively.
“The successful test is a big step ahead for directed energy systems and protection against adversarial threats,” said Maj. Gen. William Cooley, AFRL commander. “The ability to shoot down missiles with speed of light technology will enable air operation in denied environments. I am proud of the AFRL team advancing our Air Force’s directed energy capability.”
Aircraft have been working to maintain air superiority since aircraft were invented and Air Force tactical aircraft have been trying to shoot down aircraft since then, so there’s an ever-present need to improve the survivability of airframes. In that interest, Air Force scientists are trying to supplement the defensive measures that aircraft already have such as flares and chaff. With SHiELD, they will have active laser systems.
The Air Force has previously suggested that this system could be used to protect not only advanced fighters but also bombers, tankers, and transport aircraft in high-risk environments, such as the difficult-to-penetrate anti-access zones that US great-power rivals are creating.
Watch the US Navy’s laser weapon in action
Unlike traditional countermeasures, this defensive could offer endless protection against a variety of threats, making it a potentially revolutionary concept. The Air Force is probably still a few years out from demonstrating a working prototype of the final SHiELD laser
The Air Force’s science and technology communities are actively researching various laser technologies to determine their offensive and defensive capabilities and ensure they meet the operational standards required by the service’s airframes.
Past research focused on chemical lasers, which have been successfully demonstrated as ground defense systems and on the Airborne Laser System. Today’s research has moved away from chemically driven lasers to solid-state lasers.