Lockheed Martin receives $26.3mn contract to develop airborne laser weaponry

Lockheed Martin receives $26.3mn contract to develop airborne laser weaponry”

Lockheed Martin has been awarded $26m by the United States government's Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) to develop a high-power fibre laser that will be tested on a fighter jet by 2021.

AFRL, which says that it plans to test the laser by 2021, awarded the contract as part of its "Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD)" program, and describes the effort as a major step forward in the maturation of protective airborne laser systems.

AFRL's SHiELD program includes turret research, laser pod research and development, and laser advancements research (LANCE), with the program specifically aimed at developing advanced laser weaponry systems.

A new contract that seems to be ripped from Star Wars calls for Lockheed Martin to design, develop and produce a high-power fiber laser for the U.S. Air Force Research Lab.

Cost has always been an issue with laser weapons, but fiber lasers should be affordable because they leverage a very large technology base for fiber-optic communications and industrial lasers, says Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed.

Aside from the challenging space and weight constraints, the deployment on a fighter jet would require a laser weapon to operate at significantly longer stand-off distances than land- or ship-fielded systems, because of the much higher speeds involved. Experimental lasers mounted on aircraft date back to the US Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, but producing a practical weapon system has proven hard.

In 2014, the Navy mounted and tested a laser on the USS Ponce.

"LANCE will represent the next generation of a compact design", Afzal says.

Earlier this year, Lockheed's ground-based ATHENA system shot down five 10.8-ft (3.3-m) wingspan Outlaw drones by focusing its 30-kW Accelerated Laser Demonstration Initiative (ALADIN) laser at their stern control surfaces until they burned off, sending them crashing into the desert floor. The LANCE contract leverages technology building blocks from internal research and development projects, including the ATHENA system and ALADIN laser, as well as contract experience gained from programs such as the U.S. Army's Robust Electric Laser Initiative (RELI) program. "It's exciting to see this technology mature enough to embed in an aircraft", said Afzal. "The technologies are ready to be produced, tested and deployed on aircraft, ground vehicles and ships".

It's not clear at this time how the laser will be used, but Lockheed spokesperson Kate Scruggs told Business Insider that "the only thing that's been said publicly is that it will be used for self-defense against ground-to-air and air-to-air weapons".

The US Air Force plans to test the weapon by 2021.

Lockheed, Northrop and Boeing are three of the largest defense contractors and political donors in the US.

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