The Air Force last week signed a new contract with Lockheed Martin as the service moves closer to putting powerful laser weapons on fighter jets.
Though the Pentagon has been attempting to put lasers on jets for two decades, largely in an effort to field an effective ballistic missile defense, there is renewed hope that developers are “on the cusp of a breakthrough in beam technology.
The $26 million contract charges Lockheed with developing a laser in the 50 kw range that can be fitted to a supersonic F-15 fighter. The defense firm is tasked with developing a weapon that can destroy targets up to a mile away.
Eventually, the Pentagon hopes to field a more powerful laser — in the 100 – 150 kw range — as the technology matures and power plants get smaller and more lethal.
Lasers fired from trucks and Navy warships have already been tested and remain under development. But warplane technology has eluded developers since airborne laser platforms began to tested in the 1990s.
Unlike traditional missile defenses, lasers burn through incoming missiles or artillery rounds rather than destroy them kinetically.
Pentagon officials believe the military is closer than ever to developing a capability that is far cheaper to field than missiles and can be fired multiple times. The cost difference: $1-$5 per shot versus a couple hundred thousand dollars per missile. [source]
(Analyst comment: China has also recently conducted laser weapon testing on drones. That, here.)