The US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) has awarded a $26.3m (£20m) contract to Lockheed Martin for the development of compact, high-power fibre laser weapon for fighter jets.

The multi-million dollar deal comes as part of the AFRL's Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program – a broader effort aimed at bolstering fighter jet defences against anti-aircraft missiles. The weapon essentially includes three subsystems – the laser to be developed by Lockheed Martin, the technology that directs the beam on the target, and the top-mounted pod that powers and cools the whole thing.

According to a report from Business Insider, Northrop Grumman will develop the beam control technology, while Boeing will undertake the pod development. The entire system is expected to be ready for tests around 2021.

A spokesperson for Lockheed Martin said the laser would be used for self-defence against air-to-air and ground-to-air weapons.

"Lockheed Martin continues to rapidly advance laser weapon systems and the technologies that make them possible," said Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at the company. "We have demonstrated our ability to use directed energy to counter threats from the ground, and look forward to future tests from the air as part of the SHiELD system."

As the entire system will be airborne, Lockheed Martin is working to ensure the laser functions effectively in a compact environment and is giving more efforts to keep its weight, size on the lower side.

"Earlier this year, we delivered a 60 kW-class laser to be installed on a U.S. Army ground vehicle," said Afzal. It's a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform. It's exciting to see this technology mature enough to embed in an aircraft".

Though there's no word on the deployment of the laser, a report from Popular Mechanics suggests that the weapon will likely be deployed on the planes that are most vulnerable in the modern battlefield such as the F-15C, the F-15E Strike Eagle, and F-16 Fighting Falcon.

"The development of high power laser systems like SHiELD show laser weapon system technologies are becoming real," the senior fellow added. "The technologies are ready to be produced, tested and deployed on aircraft, ground vehicles and ships."