Air Force Hits Major Snags With Fighter And Missile Defense Airborne Laser Initiatives

The service says that technical problems and other issues have dogged the programs, which have led to at least a two-year delay.

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The U.S. Air Force says it has pushed back the schedule for beginning flight testing of a podded laser directed energy weapon intended to protect fighter jets and other aircraft from incoming missiles by two years to 2023. The delay is the result of technical difficulties combined with general slowdowns in work due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It also follows the disclosure of issues with a separate airborne laser weapon system program intended for missile defense.

Defense News was first to publish the latest details on the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) Advanced Technology Demonstration (ATD) program, following an interview with the project's manager, Jeff Heggemeier, on June 10, 2020. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been working on SHiELD since at least 2013. It awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin the following year to develop the solid-state laser itself, while Northrop Grumman and Boeing subsequently got deals to work on the beam control system and the pod, respectively. The Air Force had originally planned to begin flight testing of a complete prototype system on a fighter jet in 2021.

"This is a really complex technology to try to integrate into that flight environment, and that’s ultimately what we’re trying to do with this program, is demonstrate that laser technology is mature enough to be able to integrate onto that airborne platform," Heggemeier explained to Defense News. “But even things like COVID, and COVID shutting down the economy. That has impacts."

Heggemeier did not go into great detail about the technical issues that the program is apparently experiencing. Last year, the Air Force, in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, successfully used a ground-based solid-state laser known as the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS) as a surrogate for SHiELD to shoot down a number of air-launched missiles over White Sands Missile Range in News Mexico. 

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The Demonstrator Laser Weapon System.

The exact power class of the DLWS' laser is unknown, but Heggemeier told Defense News it was in the "tens of kilowatts," adding that "it turns out the DLWS system, when you take everything into account, is a really good surrogate for the laser power on SHiELD." By the time of the White Sands tests, Lockheed Martin had already delivered a 60-kilowatt-class laser weapon system to the U.S. Army.

In 2019, the Air Force also flight-tested a pod with the same shape as the one Boeing is developing for SHiELD to gather basic data on how the stresses of flight impact it and the aircraft carrying it. Heggemeier did not say what type of aircraft carried the pod during those tests, but Air Force Magazine had previously reported that a variant of the F-15 family had been slated to carry the complete prototype system.

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A briefing slide showing the projected schedule for airborne laser directed energy weapon development as of 2014.

Heggemeier offered no specific updates on the beam control system or any other components that might be the source of the technical delays. However, "a lot of the challenge is trying to get all of this stuff into this small pod," he said. 

"If you look at other lasers that are fairly mature, we have other laser systems that some other contractors have built that are ready to be deployed," he continued. "But these are ground-based systems, and they are much, much more mature."

It is worth noting, however, that the Army flight-tested a podded solid-state laser from Raytheon on an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter in 2017. AFRL, together with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Lockheed Martin, also tested a turreted laser on a modified Dassault Falcon 10 business jet as part of the Aero-Adaptive, Aero-Optic Beam Control (ABC) program, which focused on advanced adaptive focusing and stabilization capabilities, in 2014. 

“I think it’s important for us to first remember what the whole point of SHiELD is. The whole point of SHiELD is not an acquisition program where we’re turning out hundreds or tens of these laser systems for operational use," Heggemeier said. "What we’re trying to do with SHiELD is exactly answer those questions of: ‘Is laser technology mature enough to go on an airborne platform? Have we solved enough of those technical challenges that this is now a feasible thing?’ Because there is that concern."

The delays for the SHiELD program also comes amid concerns about another effort to develop a solid-state airborne laser weapon system capable of shooting down ballistic missiles during the initial boost phase of flight. That is when those missiles are at their slowest and their rocket motors are burning brightly, meaning they're more vulnerable to attack and easier to track. The plan had been to put this directed energy weapon on a drone to reduce the risks associated with getting close enough to a launch site, which could be deep inside heavily defended enemy territory, to actually carry out such an attack.

"As a weapon system to equip an airplane with the lasers we think necessary in terms of their power level …and get them to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately, that combination of things can’t go on one platform," Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin said in May. "I’m extremely skeptical that we can put a large laser on an aircraft and use it to shoot down an adversary missile even from very close."

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had been running a Low Power Laser Demonstrator (LPLD) program as a risk reduction effort for this concept, which is set to end this year. Aviation Week's Defense Editor and friend of the War Zone Steve Trimble reported on June 30 that MDA now plans to transition that project to the High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative. That effort "appears focused on surface-based systems but includes options for airborne tech," he explained on Twitter.

"State-of-the-art power to weight ratio for HEL tech now is 1:30. So 1kW requires 30lb to product [sic; produce]," Trimble wrote in another Tweet. "Airborne systems need to be around 1:2-3. And scaled-up to 500kW-1MW. And capable of 60,000ft altitude."

All told, there has definitely been a noticeable shift in the U.S. military's tone with regards to airborne laser weapon systems, in general, from upbeat to more reserved in recent months, even from historically outspoken advocates for the technology, such as Griffin. This skepticism doesn't seem to apply to work on sea and land-based laser weapons. The Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, along with his deputy, Lisa Porter, tendered their resignations last week for unclear reasons, but which might be tied to Congressional complaints about the handling of other missile defense programs.

"You’re not talking about these really, really long ranges. You’re talking about a shorter range and different targets just to protect yourself or your wingman," Heggemeier said, referring to projects such as the LPLD versus SHiELD. "Missile defense can mean a lot of things. Some of those missile defense missions are very, very hard, and some of them aren’t quite so hard."

It remains to be seen what category SHiELD will ultimately fall into as work continues on the prototype podded system in the next few years.

Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com