The US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is scheduled to receive the first major assembly of its Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) weapon by February-end.
It is believed SHiELD would ultimately help develop a laser weapon that could eventually shoot down the ‘most lethal’ Russian S-400 missiles.
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The AFRL, which operates under the US Air Force Materiel Command, is anticipating the delivery of the subsystem for SHiELD later this month. SHiELD is an advanced technology demonstration program that will aim to develop a directed energy laser weapon to be carried in an aircraft pod.
The development of lasers can be categorized under the directed energy weapons or DEWS, which are ranged weapons that use highly focused energy, including laser, microwaves, and particle beams to damage targets.
The weapons could prove crucial in future contactless warfare with the potential applications of laser technology to target enemy fighter jets, personnel, vehicles, missiles, and optical devices.
Under the SHiELD advanced technology demonstration program, the modern laser weapon could be installed on the country’s fighter jets to shoot down surface-to-air missiles or air-to-air missiles flying at Mach speeds.
A host of American aerospace giants have joined hands to develop such weapons, with F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin taking the lead in the SHiELD program.
The Maryland-headquartered company was awarded a $26.3 million contract to design and build the laser. The beam control system for the weapon will be developed by Northrop Grumman, and a pod to encase it will be produced by Boeing.
The SHiELD pod structure, which will be the first major assembly, will allow the scientists and engineers at AFRL to start building and integrating the entire system.
The rest of the subsystems including Lockheed’s laser system and Northrop’s beam control system are likely to be delivered to the lab by July this year.
The full system test will be scheduled for the fiscal year 2024, with Lockheed being the prime contractor for the program.
The program has faced several delays with the AFRL highlighting the technical difficulty of shooting down incoming missiles that have the ability to travel greater than the speed of sound.
“These are hard problems we are solving. Imagine the disturbances and stresses – wind speeds, turbulence, and quick aircraft maneuvers that a laser system would have to perform under. We had to solve those challenges first – and that took time,” said Jeff Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager.
The laser weapon system is expected to give the US military a decisive edge in future combat situations. This also assumes significance given the US Air Force fighter jets are vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles such as the Russian-made S-400s.
According to Kelly Hammett, Director of the AFRL’s Directed Energy Directorate, the SHiELD weapon will be a game-changer if it works as advertised.
“The ability to shoot down missiles in flight, and operate in denied environments increases the advantage we have over our adversaries,” said Hammett.