Air Force Future Tech: COMACC talks Laser-Equipped Aircraft

JOINT BASE LANGELY-EUSTIS, Va. -- The U.S. Air Force was born out of technology. After taking flight with the development of the first airplane and maintaining the United States' role in air superiority, one may wonder, what technological innovation is the Air Force planning next to ensure command of the air?

One promising possibility--lasers. To broaden the force's capabilities, the next advancement may be a laser-equipped aircraft, which could provide an entirely new realm of capabilities to meet the Air Force mission to fly, fight, and win.

The Air Force's science and technology communities are actively researching various laser technologies to determine their offensive and defensive capabilities and ensure they meet the operational standards required by the service's airframes.

Past research focused on chemical lasers, which have been successfully demonstrated as ground defense systems and on the Airborne Laser System. Today's research has moved away from chemically driven lasers to solid-state lasers.

"Chemical lasers are very large and have a lot of logistical issues," said Dr. Thomas Spencer, Air Combat Command assistant chief scientist. "Solid-state lasers are basically electric lasers. These lasers use solid-state materials as the lazing medium, the most recognizable being fiber optic cables. What's best about solid-state lasers is that essentially as long as you have jet fuel, you can use the laser."

Spencer said laser-based weapons have the potential to provide important capabilities to the warfighter, including rapid air-to-air and air-to-ground defense, virtually bottomless magazines, and relatively cheap ammunition.

"As we expand technology, laser weapons are the next logical step," said U.S. Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command. "If you have a laser, you're operating at the speed of light, which means you can do a lot more to an adversary in a much shorter period of time. It gives you more time to react and make decisions while minimizing your adversary's potential ability to counter it."

Carlisle explained how the incredible advances in laser weapons technology lie in the competitive arena of global innovation, where the United States has been a leader for many years.

"As we look at what adversaries have watched us do for the last 25 years, they know when we control the air, we win, so they're doing everything in their power to stop us from doing that," said Carlisle. "We have to continue to advance and move into weapon systems like a laser-equipped fighter-type aircraft, which is what I really want to happen in my tenure. [This is] the next leap in technology."

While today's technology is being tailored for next generation fighters, Spencer said laser-weapon pods could be available to mount on existing fighter aircrafts in the near future. Carlisle added that testing for these pods has already begun.

"There's a test where we're trying to put it in a pod which might go on an F-15," said Carlisle. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll see a prototype test case in the next year or two. It's an incredible capability and it's in the realm of the possible."

Spencer said other options include putting the laser aboard larger aircraft to protect against surface-to-air missiles; or putting one on a remotely piloted aircraft to provide additional protection.

"I think [laser-equipped aircrafts] will enhance our ability to provide theater air power," said Carlisle. "Our [relative] position in the joint fight in air and space won't change, but our capabilities will significantly increase and we'll do it better than anybody in the world."