The Air Force is looking for more information about laser weapons to use against drones

Solid state laser uss ponceUS Navy photo by John F. Williams/ReleasedThe USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) in the Persian Gulf.

The Air Force’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office this week issued a request for information to industry partners about directed-energy weapons to counter unmanned aircraft systems.

The request is market research ahead of an experimentation demonstration that comes as part of the Air Force Directed Energy Weapons Flight Plan, which was issued in May by the branch’s secretary and chief of staff.

The SDPE is asking interested parties for information about their ability “to provide a directed energy weapons system for targeting group 1 and group 2 unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) during a counter-UAS operation.”

The request outlines a directed-energy counter-UAS system that works with existing command-and-control systems and “may employ a modular structure capable of interfacing with existing weapon system platforms and sensors to tailor configuration to tasking.”

“Proposed systems must be robust and have integrated sensors used to find, fix, track, and target single and/or multiple UAS targets,” the request states. It expresses interest in command and sensor systems to rapidly detect and identify drones and integrate with weapon systems that can “interdict, defeat or deny enemy use of UAS through the use of directed energy (high power microwaves and laser weapon systems).”

The document said the Air Force had issued the request to “explore cost-effective acquisition options to provide this capability starting in” fiscal year 2018.

Airborne laserUS Missile Defence AgencyAn airborne laser in flight.

“We identified directed energy as a game-changing technology area in our Air Force strategy and pressed forward with developing a flight plan to define what we needed to do to get from the laboratory to operational capability,” Air Force chief scientists Dr. Greg Zacharias said in a release. “Experimentation and prototyping are critical tools to help make this happen.”

The Air Force says directed-energy weapons offer precise targeting with minimal collateral damage and low exposure for Air Force personnel and could cut down on the use of fuel and other resources. The service has been contemplating laser-weapon systems for some time.

At the 2015 Air Force Association Air & Space conference, Gen. Hawk Carlisle said the Air Force was looking at something like a laser cannon that could be mounted on aircraft and used against enemy aircraft, both manned and unmanned, as well as missiles.

Carlisle said at the time the Air Force had a five-year window in mind for such a weapon. “That day is a lot closer than I think a lot of people think it is.”

Laser dronemissilethreat.csis.orgA possible design for a drone-mounted laser interceptor.

Air Force Special Operations Command has also considered equipping the new AC-130J “Ghostrider” gunship with a laser weapon that could be used against ground targets during raids and other missions. AFSOC chief Gen. Brad Webb said this spring that directed-energy weapons were quickly moving from conceptual to practical.

“We’re no longer talking about bulky chemical lasers, but streamlined electrical lasers,” Webb said after visiting research labs working on such technology. “Believe me, this technology is quickly leaving the pages of science fiction.”

The Air Force Research Lab also recently started the SHIELD program, a five-year effort to create high-tech on-board systems, including lasers, to defend large aircraft like the B-52 bomber and the C-130 transport.

Lockheed martin laserScreenshot via LockheedMartinVideos/YouTubeLockheed Martin’s ATHENA laser-weapon system.

In August, Lockheed Martin tested its ATHENA system, a 30-kilowatt laser weapon, downing five drones.

The Air Force has said it would start equipping larger planes with lasers until it was possible to miniaturize them for use on fighter aircraft. Mounting lasers on drones is expected to even more complicated.

The Air Force is currently doing ground tests of a weapon called the High Energy Laser at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, officials told Scout Warrior. Airborne tests were expected by 2021.

The development work being done on laser-weapon systems is focused on increasing the power of existing lasers and introducing guidance systems.

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