Optical warfare: laser weapons on fighter jets
The US Air Force is testing laser weapons on larger aircrafts. Nick Kaloterakis

The US Air Force's long-standing ambition to outfit its fleet of aircraft with laser weaponry has seemingly taken another step forward. Air Force scientists have claimed that an advanced "bolt-on" lasers using advanced optics technology is currently in testing.

Designed to fit larger aircraft such as the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the defensive lasers have been designed to intercept and incinerate missiles from air-to-air or air-to-ground attacks, Air Force chief scientist Greg Zacharias told Warrior.

The defence measure is part of the Air Force's Self-protected High-Energy Laser Demonstration (SHIELD) programme established as a five-year project to fit high-powered lasers to its larger aircraft.

Due to power demands, the experimental technology is currently being tested for non-fighter aircraft with enough on-board output to accommodate the SHIELD pods. As well as its size, the B-52 has been selected as it's currently undergoing an upgrade programme including next-gen avionics and communications systems in order to keep the 1960s-era bomber in service until 2040.

Concerns over the bolt-on design attracting unwanted attention from air defence radar systems also means the technology is ineligible for stealth aircraft, such as the F-35 Lightning II, until it can be miniaturised.

In the initial concept phases of the project the lasers are projected to output at a maximum of 30kw, however the expectation is that this will rise - alongside its potential as an offensive measure - as the technology advances. Currently, the US Army is testing out 60kw truck-mounted lasers from Lockheed Martin that can destroy a target over a mile away in just one second. Air Force Research Laboratory officials noted that it has plans to deploy laser weapons into the field by 2023.

While the intention behind the optical weaponry is to avoid explosion damage from missiles intended for air or ground targets, it could also be used to jam incoming projectiles. "You may not want to destroy the incoming missile but rather throw the laser off course – spoof it," Zacharias told Warrior.

Additionally, Zacharias discussed whether the defensive tech could be used in conjunction with autonomous targeting and weapon delivery systems to neutralise threats without a human operator. "There will always be some connection with human operators at one echelon or another," he said.

"It may be intermittent, but they will always be part of a team. A lot of that builds on years and years of working automation systems, flight management computers, aircraft and so forth."

In March, Air Force officials spoke out about seeking funding from the US government to expand its laser weapon tests over the coming year. A month later, Virginia-based defence contractor Engility Corporation was awarded $8.5m in funding to advance work on optical radiation weapons under the US Air Force's Optical Radiation Bioeffects and Safety (ORBS) programme.