On October 28, the US Air Force released a wind tunnel model image of an F-15 fighter jet with a laser weapon pod mounted on its centerline station. The extensive flow disturbances surrounding an F-15 Eagle with a pod can be seen in a simulated color schlieren image published by the service.
According to a statement issued by Arnold Engineering Development Complex, the 716th Test Squadron obtained a new aero-optical test capability in March.
AEDC partnered with MZA Associated Corp to develop a system capable of obtaining wavefront information anywhere near aircraft models firing laser-directed energy.
This device, known as the Integrated Directed Energy Aero-optical Surrogate (IDEAS), enables engineers to evaluate the behavior of laser energy and, if required, how to ‘precondition’ it. The testing is done in tandem with the ‘Captive Trajectory Omni-directional Reflector (CapTOR).’
Dr. Matt Whiteley, vice president and senior scientist with MZA, said that “IDEAS allows for measurement geometries that are difficult to obtain using tunnel windows, including in the deep wake of the aircraft. It provides the complete picture of the environment in which a laser must operate.”
The testing of the Aero-Isolation Measurement Sensor, or AIMS, a system component, was done last year and is the foundation for IDEAS and CapTOR.
Dr. Rich Roberts, flight commander of the Store Separation Flight, 716 TS, said that the most recent tests resulted from years of research, testing, and development to build an aero-optical test capability at the AEDC wind tunnels.
He further highlighted that gathering this data would be helpful for defense projects requiring laser-directed energy transmission.
“IDEAS used in conjunction with CapTOR allows system instrumentation, including a target for tracking, to be contained within the tunnel, which enables improved accuracy and efficiency,” the statement said. The ability to track enables test personnel to imitate laser sources or target positions.
USA’s Efforts To Develop Laser Weapons
The SHiELD program, which stands for Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, is one of the major initiatives of the USAF to develop laser weapons for the future battlefield. In essence, SHiELD is a podded laser weapon with a defensive capability to destroy approaching anti-aircraft missiles.
The project has advanced through several technological stages in the past few years, including “flying an F-15 with an attached laser test pod.” The ’10s of kWs electric (solid-state) laser’ is the foundation of SHiELD.
According to the developers, the system demonstrator reportedly shot down many air-launched missiles in 2019 while serving as a ground-based test surrogate for the SHiELD system.
The Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator’s (SHiELD) first full-up flight test is scheduled for 2024.
However, Mike Griffin, a former head of research and engineering for the Department of Defense, expressed extreme skepticism about the viability of powerful airborne lasers in 2020.
Griffin mentioned challenging technical obstacles such as power levels, beam stability in the presence of atmospheric turbulence, and even support requirements.
On the other hand, the developers believe that SHiELD will be the first Air Force demonstration to show that they have overcome the technological obstacles in integrating a high-power laser weapon with an aircraft for this mission.
Experts stated that the need for airborne laser self-defense weapons is growing due to efforts made by adversaries to construct intricate and layered air defenses designed to hinder American forces’ ability to successfully penetrate and destroy ground targets like missiles about to launch.
Directed energy weapons like these are expected to be the future of air and missile defense for airborne aircraft because they can produce a considerably greater magazine of rounds than kinetic interceptors.
Meanwhile, the Air Force tested the Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL), a laser demonstrator, aboard the AC-130 aircraft for research. Laser weapons that are effective and lightweight may be fitted aboard fighters and put into service after 2029, according to information from the Air Force.
The Air Force is preparing pilots to roll out directed energy weapons eventually. In February 2022, United States Air Force pilots participated in wargames that included pilot training using virtual laser weapons.
During this exercise, the Directed Energy Directorate of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) hosted the Munitions Directorate as part of the exercise.
Both directorates employed the Directed Energy and Kinetic Energy Directed Energy Utility Concept Experiment, often known as DEKE DEUCE, throughout the event to examine how directed energy and kinetic concepts might work together in the future theater of operations.
Though it will take some time before laser weapons are completely incorporated into fighter jets, this does not preclude the possibility that they could be employed in combat in the future.