USAF Wants to Study More Powerful Airborne Laser to Follow F-15 Pod

USAF is starting to think about more powerful laser weapons that could replace a less-advanced beam on a fighter jet, an Air Force Research Laboratory document showed. AFRL graphic.

The Air Force is beginning to think about more powerful laser weapons that could replace a less-advanced beam on a fighter jet, according to an Air Force Research Laboratory document posted earlier this month.

This six-month study, dubbed the Compact High-Energy Laser Subsystem Engineering Assessment (CHELSEA), asks industry to look at ways to build a weapon that is significantly more powerful than that created by the Self-Protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator program.

“CHELSEA is intended to identify the most promising technology options to scale laser power by calendar year 2024,” according to a Jan. 11 AFRL announcement. “The data and results may also be used to guide government technology investment decisions beyond 2024.”

SHiELD aims to demonstrate a defensive laser on Boeing’s F-15 by Fiscal 2021, but it’s still unclear how powerful the weapon will be. An official from Lockheed Martin, which is building the beam subsystem, told reporters in November 2017 the laser would wield “tens of kilowatts.”

The announcement characterizes the technology that will be considered under CHELSEA as a “possible drop-in replacement” for the SHiELD laser. SHiELD is comprised of three parts that are still in development: Lockheed’s laser beam, a Northrop Grumman subsystem to control it, and a Boeing pod to carry the weapon. Their development contracts are worth around $155 million.

Tom Lockhart, director of the Air Force’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office, said in early 2018 the service planned to start ground-testing the SHiELD weapon that summer, Inside Defense previously reported (Note: This story is behind a paywall). He expected initial flight tests will take place in summer 2019. High-power tests to prove whether the laser can shoot down an incoming missile were expected in Fiscal 2021.

Whatever CHELSEA discovers could also become part of a new laser prototype that would be installed onto an aircraft, AFRL said. Such a weapon would fly at or slower than the speed of sound. The Air Force eventually plans to tweak the SHiELD laser to be carried internally, according to Inside Defense, so a future laser could sit inside an aircraft rather than hang outside in a pod.

“Directed energy weapons, including high-energy lasers, are potential game-changing technologies for United States national security,” the notice said. “Past efforts in integrating HELs aboard aircraft have resulted in large, dedicated platforms which lacked tactical utility and presented significant problems of sustainment. Recent advances in laser amplifier technology enable the development of effective laser weapon systems within the constraints of existing or near-term operational air platforms.”

Responses to the notice are due Feb. 26.