The US Air Force has recently announced that a ground-based surrogate for a laser weapon system that could protect fighter jets and other aircraft from incoming threats in the future has managed to successfully shoot down an array of air-launched missiles during a test. The publicly stated goal of the service is to have a podded prototype system that could be ready for flight tests by 2021 and have an operational capability by the end of the decade.
The test was conducted on 23rd April 2019 by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at the White Sands Missile Range located in New Mexico. The test was carried out in collaboration with Lockheed Martine, the company that is busy developing the laser. Lockheed Martin received the contract for building a focused (directed) energy weapon back in 2017 as a part of AFRL’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) Advanced Technology (ATD) program. The laser component is also known as Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE) is only a part of SHiELD effort. Work on a turreted mount and a self-contained pod that will be used for incorporating the whole system to a fighter jet are separate parts of SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects (STRAFE) and Laser Pod Research & Development (LPRD) projects.
US Air Force Major General William Cooley, head of AFRL, said in an official statement, ‘The successful test is a big step ahead for directed energy systems and protection against adversarial threats. The ability to shoot down missiles with speed of light technology will enable air operation in denied environments.’ The demonstration of the laser’s potential to spot, track, engage, and destroy more than one aerial targets is an important step forward towards SHiELD’s development.
The final goal of the US Air Force is to have SHiELD shoot down the incoming air-to-air missile while also being able to take out the surface-to-air missiles thus providing the fighter jets with an active defense system while they are operating in high-risk environments. However, this current testing process doesn’t tell us much about how far the SHiELD program has progressed. Back in 2016, AFRL had divided the test into three phases as per the briefing that The War Zone was able to obtain via the Freedom of Information Act.
Most of the document was redacted; however, it did reveal that Phase 1 of the test was to feature both low-power flight testing and the low-power ground testing using a surrogate laser. This leads us to believe that the US Air Force is currently in this process. Since the ground testing is proceeding as per the plan, we might be witnessing the flight testing of the surrogate laser soon enough. However, we are still not sure about the platform that the Air Force and Lockheed Martin will be using for these tests.
Even if everything is going according to the schedule, the Air Force is about two years away from being able to carry out a demonstration of the full prototype of the podded SHiELD system on a fighter jet. What this current test at White Sands has proven is that the program is moving forward at a steady pace and will soon transform the game-changing conceptual ability into a reality!