Star Wars fans, calm down. The US Air Force wants to fire a 100-plus-kilowatt laser from a small plane. And not just any airplane, Air Force Research Laboratory officials. The last laser on an airplane — the megawatt Airborne Laser, which filled a converted 747 and cancelled in 2011 — the 2022 demonstration will be fired from a fighter. But this isn’t a real-world X-Wing. It probably won’t even be an F-35A because that’s a stealth aircraft that carries its weapons inside to give it a smaller radar cross section. Instead, the 2022 weapon will be built into an external weapons pod.
It’s a crawl-walk-run approach, said Morley Stone, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s chief technology officer. Modern electrically powered, solid-state laser technology is “orders of magnitude” simpler and more compact than the vats of toxic chemicals that powered the cancelled Airborne Laser, Stone told reporters at Thursday’s “DoD Lab Day” in the Pentagon courtyard. But technological advances still don’t make putting lasers on airplanes simple. So, he said, “before we start getting into really what we consider a lot of risk with internal carriage integration, we’re going to look at external integration via a pod.”
Even an external pod on a fighter, however, is a much tighter and more challenging fit for a laser weapon than, say, the massive weapons bay on an AC-130 gunship. Special Operations Command wants a laser cannon on future AC-130s, but “what we’re doing is taking the most challenging case, and that’s on a fighter,” said AFRL director Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello. “As technology advances, it can be spun right off into a larger platform like the AC-130.”