"It really is a national tipping point," said Kelly Hammett, chief engineer for the AFRL's directed energy directorate. "We see the technology evolving and maturing to the stage where it really can be used."
The g-forces and vibrations of near supersonic speeds make lasers on fighters tough. Hammett said he thinks those hurdles can be overcome within five years.
Defensive laser against drones and missiles
A 360-degree defensive laser bubble could surround a U.S. warplane. The laser would automatically defend within the bubble.
To invent such a shield, you'd need a turret that doesn't interfere with the aerodynamics of the warplane. A turret like that has already been successfully tested under Hammett at AFRL in partnership with Lockheed Martin and DARPA, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The test beds for these kinds of weapons likely could be pod units installed aboard so-called fourth generation fighter jets, Hammett said. The commander of Air Force Combat Command, Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, revealed last May that a test is in the works involving an F-15 Eagle. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll see a prototype test case in the next year or two," Carlisle told Air Combat Command.
A mix of laser and conventional weapons could result in "a totally transformed battle space in 20 to 25 years," Hammett said.
The commander of USAF special ops, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, said last September that by 2020 he wants them on C-130J Ghostrider gunships for landing zone protection.
The laser weapons would take out possible threats like enemy vehicles, or disable infrastructure such as cell towers.
When you're shooting a laser, electric power equals ammunition. As long as the plane has fuel to power itself, its laser weapons essentially would be "loaded."
Located at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, the AFRL's directed energy directorate spends about a third of its roughly $150 million annual budget on laser technology. And Hammett said his directorate is fully funded to reach that 2020 goal.
Finally, with the Pentagon's widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles — aka drones — you have to ask: Would the Air Force develop drones with laser weapons systems?
"We're definitely thinking about that," said Hammett.