The US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) has contracted Lockheed Martin to develop compact airborne high-energy laser capabilities as part of the self-protect high-energy laser demonstrator (SHiELD) programme.

Under the $26.3m contract, Lockheed will design, develop and produce a high-power fibre laser that will be tested on a tactical fighter jet by 2021.

Lockheed Martin senior fellow of laser weapon systems Dr Rob Afzal said: “Lockheed Martin continues to rapidly advance laser weapon systems and the technologies that make them possible.

“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.”

The SHiELD system has three subsystems, the beam control system SHiELD turret research in aero effects (STRAFE) that will direct the laser onto the target and laser pod research and development (LPRD), which is a pod mounted on the tactical fighter jet to power and cool the laser.

It also includes the high-energy laser itself, Laser Advancements for Next-Generation Compact Environments (LANCE), which can be trained on adversary targets to disable them.

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Afzal added: “Earlier this year, we delivered a 60kW-class laser to be installed on a US Army ground vehicle.

“The development of high-power laser systems like SHiELD show laser weapon system technologies are becoming real.”

“It’s a completely new and different challenge to get a laser system into a smaller, airborne test platform.

“The development of high-power laser systems like SHiELD show laser weapon system technologies are becoming real.

“The technologies are ready to be produced, tested and deployed on aircraft, ground vehicles and ships.”

The LANCE contract benefits from internal research and development projects, including the advanced test high-energy asset (ATHENA) system, accelerated laser demonstration initiative (ALADIN) laser, and contract experience gained from programmes such as the US Army’s robust electric laser initiative (RELI) programme.