It was science fiction before, but now it’s really happening, Young Skywalker: The US Navy and Air Force are going to install liquid-cooled, solid-state lasers in combat aeroplanes.
Laser turrets designed to defend the planes by shooting incoming threats like surface-to-air missiles and rockets. Seriously. The above is an official concept image by DARPA, but integration is happening this year, with real firing tests coming in 2014.
The USAF has been playing with lasers in planes for a while. It worked to create the the highly successful — but ultimately shelved — Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed. Remember Reagan’s Star Wars? This was one of the few technologies that we got to work outside those 3D animations that scared the Soviets so much.
But that was a huge megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser designed to take down intercontinental ballistic missiles and other surface-to-surface weapons. That’s why it required a 747 to ferry it around.
These are solid-state lasers that will be light enough to be installed in bombers and fighter jets, and will be fired to defend themselves against anti-air defences like surface-to-air missiles and rockets.
The first one is called Hellads, a laser planned to be installed in tactical aircraft (the one pictured above is a B-1 bomber). Using a series of unit cells, the laser will be capable of delivering 150kW — meeting the 5kg to one kilowatt design goal. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has already showed that it can meet the spec with a single and two-unit system that was capable of producing 34kW. This kind of energy is enough to take down the threats faced by these planes.
General Atomics and DARPA say that fabrication was completed in 2012. In 2013 they will integrate it with the different systems required, and perform real-world tests against real threats fired at the planes by 2014.
And the Hellads is not the only laser the military is playing with. Lockheed Martin and DARPA are now entering a test phase for another laser, the Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control. This will be like the an automatic laser turret capable of taking down missile threats from any direction. According to DARPA, they weren’t previously able to make this system work because of the turbulence caused by the engine:
High-energy laser systems are currently limited to a forward field of regard due to turbulent density fluctuations in the aft sector of the turret that severely degrade the laser beam fluence on target.
The new laser will be able to take on rear threats by using flow control and adaptive optics, which will eliminate the distortion. Like the concept image indicates, they plan to install this laser in high-speed fighter jets.
According to Lockheed and DARPA, they have already conducted full-scale wind-tunnel tests and now they are looking to install a sub-scale laser turret in an actual plane.
Seriously, people, I keep imagining Han Solo shouting “Great kid! Don’t get cocky!”