the Navy put a battleship-mounted railgun aboard the USS Ponce; and within the next five years, the Air Force expects to have laser weapons of its very own. These armaments, dubbed directed-energy weapons pods, will be mounted on American warplanes and serve to burn missiles, UAVs — even other combat aircraft — clean out of the sky. “I believe we’ll have a directed energy pod we can put on a fighter plane very soon,” Air Force General Hawk Carlisle said at a Fifth-Generation Warfare lecture during the Air Force Association Air & Space conference earlier this week. “That day is a lot closer than I think a lot of people think it is.”
The 150 kW HELLADS system from General Atomics appears to be the current frontrunner for the USAF contract despite the system only having just recently entered ground tests. HELLADS stands for “High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System”. The third generation prototype measures just 1.3 x 0.4 x 0.5 meters — small enough to fit onto a Predator C UAV, exactly what DARPA wants to do by 2018 — and runs off of a single lithium ion battery pack.
Some low-power laser weapons were on display in mock-up on the exposition floor of the conference, including a system from General Atomics that could be mounted on unmanned aircraft such as the Predator and Reaper drones flown by the Air Force. But the Air Force is looking for something akin to a laser cannon for fighter aircraft, more powerful systems that could be mounted on fighters and other manned Air Force planes within the next five years. Directed-energy weapons pods could be affixed to aircraft to destroy or disable incoming missiles, drones, and even enemy aircraft at a much lower “cost per shot” than missiles or even guns, Carlisle suggested.
The Air Force isn’t alone in seeking directed energy weapons. The US Navy has already deployed a laser weapon at sea aboard the USS Ponce, capable of a range of attacks against small boats, drones, and light aircraft posing a threat—either by blinding their sensors or operators or heating elements to make them fail or explode. Other laser weapons are also being tested by the Office of Naval Research for use on helicopters to protect against man-portable antiaircraft missiles. (And there’s a railgun, but that’s not really a directed-energy weapon, and it’s too massive to be mounted on an aircraft).
The Air Force has been focused on a 150-plus kilowatt system under development by General Atomics in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, called HELLADS. That system is now moving into ground-based testing. But based on the results so far, the Air Force leadership clearly believes that HELLADS has come far enough that it could result in a field-ready weapons system by 2020. Even a stepped-down 100 kilowatt system could be capable of damaging or destroying aircraft and ground targets as well as missiles and drones.
According to DARPA’s Dr. David Shaver, a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats. With a weight goal of less than five kilograms per kilowatt, and volume of three cubic meters for the laser system, HELLADS seeks to enable high-energy lasers to be integrated onto tactical aircraft, significantly increasing engagement ranges compared to ground-based systems.
But before it enters operational service, the system must first pass a grueling set of field tests against mortars, rockets, UAVs, simulated surface-to-air missiles and both ground and air vehicles at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. According to Ars Technica, Air Force leaders at the presentation Beyond that, the USAF is working to develop and install Lockheed Martin’s ABC laser system on its 6th generation fighters by the mid-2030’s.
Fabio Evagelista is a Brazilian writer.