Stealth Lasers: Will the Air Force Put Anti-Missile Laser Guns on the F-22 and F-35?

Sebastien Roblin

Key Point: As lasers improve, the idea that they could be a commonplace weapon is not so far-fetched. So the military figures why not add them to America's stealth fighters?

On April 23, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) tested a fiber-optic laser at the White Sands Test Range in New Mexico that successfully shot down “multiple air-launched missiles in flight.”

The Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD), pictured here, currently exists as a bulky, ground-based demonstrator. However, the Air Force is optimistic that SHIELD can be shrunk to a small pod that could be tested on an F-15 fighter by 2021 and eventually integrated also integrated into F-16 and F-35 single-engine fighters. Some sources suggest the system may see its first flight tests on C-17 or C-130 cargo planes later in 2019.

If airborne-lasers prove as viable and effective as expected, then future laser weapons could profoundly transform aerial warfare by increasing the survivability of fighters, bombers and even tankers and transport planes to deadly anti-aircraft missiles. Further down the line, lasers could eventually serve as very fast and precise air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons with virtually unlimited magazines.

This article will first look at the strengths, limitations and implications of aerial laser weapons, then look at three aerial laser weapon initiatives currently being pursued by the Pentagon.

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