For Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons maker, the $26 million Air Force contract is something of a pittance, easily overlooked in a sea of massive, multi-mission-dollar awards. The aim of the contract, to develop a laser weapon that could fit on a fighter jet, could also be a fool’s errand that was considered impossible just a few years ago.
But if the company is able to develop the technology, it would mark a major breakthrough in laser weapons that many think is already starting to transform warfare. And in another sign of the advancement of laser technology, General Atomics this week was awarded a nearly $9 million contract to develop a laser that could be put on a drone.
The Pentagon has been keenly interested in lasers for the past several years. Unlike bullets or bombs or missiles, they sizzle instead of go boom and can limit damage to a specific target, while limiting collateral damage. Lasers travel at the speed of light and are relatively inexpensive. And with enough power, they can fire for long periods of time without ever running out of ammunition.
On a fighter jet, they could be particularly effective, able to even shoot down missiles, officials said. Think of it this way: A weapon that fires at the speed of light would be traveling on a fighter jet potentially flying faster than the speed of sound to shoot down a missile also traveling at supersonic velocity.
All of which would represent a major leap forward in the speed and precision in modern weaponry — a “new era,” as Robert Afzal, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin, said.
“This technology is really rapidly evolving,” he said. “It’s remarkable the progress we’ve been making.”
But lasers require vast amounts of energy to operate, and discharge a lot of heat, which means they need space. Getting them to be compact enough to fit on a fighter jet is an enormous challenge — not to mention being able to withstand the turbulence and G-loads that a fighter jet generates.
Lockheed makes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy fighter jet that has become the most expensive weapons system in the history of the Pentagon. But the company wouldn’t say if the laser test would be on an F-35 or another fighter.
In 2014, the Navy put a laser on the USS Ponce, testing it against small, swarming boats. Since then, as the technology continued to progress, the military has armed trucks and Humvees with lasers. General Atomics, which makes the Predator and the MQ-9B drones, was awarded a contract from the Missile Defense Agency to develop a laser that could go on a drone. The company declined to comment on the program.
Raytheon, meanwhile, has even put a laser on a militarized dune buggy. Earlier this year, it outfitted an Apache helicopter with a laser weapon for the first time.
That demonstration showed significant progress in the technology, said Ben Allison, the director of Raytheon’s high-energy laser product line.
“Lasers being deployed out of the laboratory environment is one of the large hurdles we have to overcome in this industry,” he said. “In the lab, you’re able to control the environment, even humidity and dust. And the challenges of being able to transition that from the lab to a moving platform, whether on the ground to an airborne environment, are pretty steep.”
It’s even more difficult on a fighter jet. Under the contract, Lockheed would need to demonstrate and test a laser on a jet by 2021, which was considered a long shot just a few years ago.
“Four the five years ago, we would have said maybe one day, but it’s going to be really tough,” Afzal said.
Now, he said, “that day is coming.”