The Pentagon tasked Lockheed Martin Corp. with equipping a fighter jet with a missile-killing laser by 2021, a challenge that has eluded the military for over two decades.
Lockheed in November secured a $26 million deal from the Pentagon to develop a laser for a supersonic F-15 jet capable of disabling a missile or drone from a mile or more away, according to a defense department release and military officials. It is the landmark piece of a Pentagon push to develop a low-cost solution to outmatch adversaries such as China that are fielding ever-more capable missiles and drones.
Lasers fired from trucks or a Navy ship already have been tested, but military officials said fitting one to a jet would be a crucial breakthrough in providing defenses that can be employed in large numbers.
Air Force officials have said they want a laser weapon with an initial 50 kilowatts of power—some five times that of the largest industrial lasers—capable of destroying a target a mile or more away. The Pentagon hopes eventually to procure lasers with up to 100 or 150 kilowatts or power.
Military leaders working with Lockheed rivals such as Boeing Co. and Northrop GrummanCorp. have spent a quarter century and an estimated $8 billion testing lasers and other directed-energy systems such as microwaves. None has ever been fielded or advanced to production.
The Pentagon is now more confident that technology has caught up with the promise of a cheaper alternative to missiles that can be fired multiple times, military officials said.
“Every single service has been over-promised and undelivered on their promises over these last two decades.” Mary Miller, the Pentagon’s acting assistant secretary for research and development, said at an industry conference. “We are on the cusp of seeing many, many aspects of directed energy start to proliferate.”
Weight and cost issues stalled previous efforts to install lasers on aircraft. The Boeing-led Airborne Laser program relied on a 12,000-pound chemical laser shoehorned into a jumbo jet. The Pentagon abandoned the project in 2011 after spending more than $6 billion, believing it impractical to fly the dozens of jets necessary to provide adequate defenses against ballistic missiles.
Now, defense companies are focusing on fiber lasers first developed for the telecommunications industry that amplify and focus light from hundreds of strands into a single beam.
“It’s a significant advancement in the technology from a size and weight perspective.” said Rob Afzal, a Lockheed senior fellow in laser weapon systems.
The lasers have been tested on missiles, drones and artillery rounds. They burn up a hostile projectile’s electronic systems rather than destroy it like a missile.
The advantage is they don’t run out of ammunition, so long as they have a power supply. The energy cost of $1 to $5 a shot compares with $100,000 to $200,000 for a defensive missile.
Northrop is developing equipment to focus the beam and Boeing is building the pod to house the system on a jet.
Mr. Afzal said the quest for an affordable and compact option has been aided by rapid growth in demand for more powerful industrial lasers.
Firms such as Massachusetts-based IPG Photonics Corp and Germany’s Trumpf GmbH have benefitted from surging demand for lasers as powerful as 10 kilowatts that are used to cut and weld materials such as lightweight metal alloys and ceramics for customers including Boeing and Lockheed, said Mark Neice, executive director of the Directed Energy Professional Society, a trade group.
The global market for directed energy weapons, including lasers, is forecast to grow to more than $24 billion by 2021 from around $7 billion, according to research firm Markets and Markets. Some military experts said that estimate is too optimistic. The recent U.S. defense policy bill allotted just $200 million to directed energy.
General Atomics, maker of Predator drones usually equipped with missiles, also won an $18 million contract last month to develop a laser that could be installed by 2021 on a high-altitude unmanned aircraft to shoot down missiles.