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Here’s How the Air Force Will Put Death Rays on Fighter Jets


    The U.S. Air Force Research Lab has begun building a pod-mounted laser weapon designed to keep friendly aircraft safe from enemy missiles. The Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) pod is under construction at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. If successful, one of SHiELD’s descendants will protect older Air Force fighters, tankers, and surveillance aircraft from missile attacks.

    The SHiELD pod, which the Air Force worked on with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman, will consist of three major subsystems including the pod itself, the laser, and beam control. AFRL received the pod this month, and the two remaining subsystems will arrive later this year.

    The SHiELD pod, the first of three major assemblies for the demo laser weapon.

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    Missiles dominate modern air-to-air combat. Aircraft are at risk from air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles, both of which fly at Mach 2+ in order to catch up to and intercept planes. These missiles fly too fast for conventional guns to reliably track and destroy them, particularly since an outgoing projectile is subject to wind, gravity, and other factors.

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    Lasers, however, are immune to many of the problems afflicting conventional guns. Lasers don’t fly a ballistic profile, but rather, travel at 186,000 miles per second in a perfectly straight line. An aircraft-mounted laser would also have an unlimited number of shots.


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    AFRL credits the SHiELD program with a number of milestones on the road to a real-life, pod-mounted laser, including “successfully flying an F-15 with attached laser test pod, and the successful shoot-down of air-launched missiles using a ground-based system configured to represent the laser system’s self-protect aspects.”

    SHiELD is a tech demonstrator, meaning it will never see combat. But if it’s successful, it will eventually lead to a pod-mounted laser for other U.S. Air Force aircraft. Older fighters like the F-15 and F-16 could strap on laser pods for active protection from missiles. Meanwhile, transports like the C-17 Globemaster III, tankers like the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-46 Pegasus, and even airborne warning and control planes like the E-3 Sentry could have the means to shoot down enemy missiles for the first time.

    Here’s a concept video from Lockheed Martin that shows how a laser self defense pod would work. While the Tactical Airborne Laser Weapon System (TALWS) in this video is separate from SHiELD, Lockheed is using the experience it gained developing the AFRL weapon to build TALWs.

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    In the video, F-16 fighters wield TALWs, but it’s not hard to envision a self-contained system someday arming otherwise unarmed airplanes.

    The Air Force expects to conduct a full test of the SHiELD laser pod in 2024.


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