The United States Naval Institute News reported recently that the Air Force has issued a “request for information” to industry for the development of a laser weapon that could be mounted on an “air dominance” fighter in the 2030s.
The United States military has been developing laser weapons that would be capable of engaging and destroying targets since the 1980s era SDI program. SDI imagined space based laser systems that could destroy nuclear missiles in flight before they reached their targets. However the technology was not mature enough and the fall of the Soviet Union diminished the need for missile defense in any case.
Since then the military has tested lasers that could be mounted in large, wide body aircraft such as the Boeing 747 or on board naval vessels. Shipboard lasers, which would engage targets such as aircraft, missiles, and small boats, seem to be destined to become operational in the near to immediate future.
Building lasers that are small enough to mount inside a fighter but powerful enough to engage and destroy targets seems the stuff of science fiction. But it appears that it may be a reality in about 20 years if the development program is properly funded and remains on track.
The Air Force is looking at three types of lasers. One would be a low powered laser that could detect and track targets and defeat sensors. The second would be an intermediate powered laser that could destroy incoming missiles. The third would be a high powered offensive laser that could take our other aircraft and some targets on the ground.
The lasers would have to operate on aircraft that are flying from sea level to 65,000 feet and at speeds between Mach 0.6 to 2.5. The lasers, should they become operational, would be mounted on aircraft that will be a generation more advanced that the F-22 Raptor, F-35, and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.