Friday, July 3, 2020

Airborne Laser Test Delayed

Airborne lasers have been perpetually just a few years away for many decades, now.  ComNavOps has read articles declaring airborne lasers to be just around the corner as far back as the 1980’s and there are probably reports and articles older than that, proclaiming the same thing.  So, other than just a few years away from fruition, where are we now?

Well, in May 2020, Mike Griffin, Undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering, had this to say,

“I’m extremely skeptical that we can put a large laser on an aircraft and use it to shoot down an adversary missile, even from fairly close.” (1)

Why was Mr. Griffin skeptical?  Here’s what he had to say,

“It has been done as an experiment, but as a weapon system — to equip an airplane with the kinds of lasers we think necessary, in terms of their power level, and all their support requirements, and get the airplane to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately — that combination of things doesn’t go on one platform.” (1)

Now, we learn that the Air Force is pushing a planned test of an airborne laser on a fighter back to at least 2023.

The U.S. Air Force’s long-planned test of an airborne laser weapon aboard a fighter jet has been delayed until 2023 due to technical challenges and complications spurred by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, its program head [Jeff Heggemeier, SHiELD program manager for the Air Force Research Laboratory] said.


… Air Force acquisition czar Will Roper acknowledged that the service is rethinking how it could best use directed-energy technologies. Perhaps the most optimal use for SHiELD wasn’t onboard a fighter, he said.

While I am not a laser expert, by any means, it is clear that the challenges involved in mounting a laser on an airplane are far more challenging than anyone cares to admit.  It is also clear that a practical, fighter-mounted laser is not in the foreseeable future.

Not Happening!

Now, let’s delve into a bit of nearly unfounded speculation – isn’t that always the best kind?!

If airborne lasers have zero hope of successful missile defense, what does that suggest for the prospect of using lasers for missile defense on board ships?  To me, reading the blurry, out of focus tea leaves, I see no hope of an effective missile defense for shipboard lasers in the next, say, twenty years.  The combination of extremely fast and maneuverable missiles plus the pitching and rolling of the firing platform (the ship) suggests that maintaining a precise, fixed ‘burn’ point for a sufficiently long time to produce a catastrophic effect on an incoming missile will not be possible.

Now, toss in other mitigating factors like turbulence, humidity, weather, clouds, temperature, and whatever else (remember, I’m not a laser guy!) and the chance of producing a catastrophic effect is even further reduced.

Finally, what happens when the first successful anti-ship missile laser actually works?  You’ve got it, of course … the enemy will begin to incorporate anti-laser measures into their missiles.  One can easily imagine incorporating thicker ‘noses’ to increase burn time, inducing a continuous rolling action by the missile (Rolling Airframe Missile, anyone?), making the missile body more reflective, and many more measures that I, a barely informed amateur in the field, can’t even begin to imagine.  This will set practical laser development back another decade or two.

Of course, for less demanding applications like destroying a low, slow drone, lasers could prove practical and effective in the moderately near future.  Therefore, continued development effort is certainly warranted but to believe high end combat lasers are just around the corner is to believe in fairy tales.

The short of it is that lasers are, and will always remain, just a few years from practical application for many more decades to come.


(1)Defense News website, “Griffin ‘extremely skeptical’ of airborne lasers for missile defense”, Aaron Mehta, May-2020,


  1. "and get the airplane to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately"

    Umm, how do you get a ship to altitudes where atmospheric turbulence can be mitigated appropriately?

    Seriously, not an expert on lasers here, so I have to ask how big a problem is this? And what, if anything, can be done about it?

    1. I noted that same passage and it was a new one for me. Maybe one of our laser-informed readers will chime in and explain it?

    2. it depends mainly on two factors - distance through the atmosphere the laser has to travel and type of laser used (wavelength). Local weather (humidity) also can play a large role.

      A quick googling ( shows that for a CO2 laser, not necessarily the type used today, atmospheric attenuation for a 1-km shot ranged from 4 orders of magnitude @ sea level to <0.5 orders of magnitude @ 9,000 m (737 cruising altitude).

    3. What was the reference to turbulence? I hadn't heard that lasers are susceptible to turbulence attenuation. Or is diffraction/deflection rather than attenuation?

  2. Shipborne laser is much more viable due to availability of ship electric power generators. You are right to doubt its usefulness in performing a thermal attack against high speed targets. However such laser could be useful in countering slow targets like drone swarm attacks, providing you can solve multiple laser-beam forming. It saves your ciws ammo for high speed threats.

    1. Absorption by water vapor is a particular consideration for ship lasers because in the marine environment as there are substantial amounts of water vapor in the air eg in the very high humidity of summer in the Gulf.

      Atmospheric absorption, scattering, and turbulence plus rain or fog will stop lasers working. Absorption grows with distance to target, making lasers limited to short range.

      All above stop lasers from being an all-weather solution and of questionable operational use, would have thought funding for high power microwaves would give much better chance of success. Microwaves disrupts electronics or breaks them, radar, comms and power systems, my understanding cover a much wider area than lasers so better able to counter swarms, requires lower power, not high power as do lasers.

    2. I know almost nothing about microwaves as weapons. Can they be emitted directionally so as not to disrupt all friendly assets in the area?

      Why haven't they been pursued as much as lasers?

    3. We have pursued microwave emitters, even used them for counter IED. Lack of interest and fundamental issues killed the project.

    4. But yes, as @Nick stated, it was a impressive system, even the vehicle based prototype we had. I highly recommend you submit a FOIA on it.

    5. I know the AF modified a cruise missile into a EMP weapons and tested it as a soft-kill system to knock out power plants and comm centers without loss of life using microwaves.


      It was successfully tested in 2012. Looks like they're trying to shrink it down into a new JASSM version.

  3. The DIRCM systems use beam spread to their advantage against ir guided missiles. Blinding an IIR sensor is a lot easier than burning AL.

  4. The old R&D laser adage rings true "These are weapon systems of the future and always will be"

  5. Never understood why CIWS guns weren't added to larger planes WW2 bomber style.(eg millenium guns). They could handle the weight, have the range, have bigger sensors to detect missiles and planes, and don't have the horizon as a real issue.

    Using my armchair amateur imagination, several Hercules or Galaxy sized planes with..5? 8? CIWS, escorting 4th gen fighters eg the F-15X bomb truck.

    As for lasers on planes, I imagine the size of the laser, and the power needed, means it'll need a large platform. X-Wing fighters aren't going to happen for decades, if ever, imho


    1. I'm not quite sure exactly what scenario you're envisioning but there's a few things to consider. The sheer size of the aircraft precludes it being used as a tactical escort; it would be too slow to keep up with combat aircraft and it would be so big and non-stealthy that it would give away the location/route of the strike. Also, any CIWS type gun is very short ranged, say, an effective range of 1-2 miles, depending. Aerial combat covers dozens of miles so getting a large, slow aircraft into range of any attacking missile would be very unlikely unless you had dozens of the escorts. Finally, air-to-air missiles are relatively small compared to anti-ship missiles, generally speaking, and would be difficult targets to hit.

      It's an interesting notion but unless I completely misunderstood your scenario it doesn't seem practical.

  6. At close in range, how many missiles could one laser defeat? Once it breaks the horizon, a missile going Mach 3 will hit you in about 18 seconds. Maybe 5 to 6, at best. Meaning a ship would need several lasers to fend off a salvo attack.

    Wouldn't it make more sense to develop an extended range SeaRAM or mount ESSMs on a box or angled deck launcher instead? That sounds more doable.

    1. "how many missiles could one laser defeat?"

      It depends on the required 'burn' time. Currently, the answer is none. We have no laser system that can maintain contact long enough to burn through in the available time. We're nowhere near the Star Wars instantaneous vaporization kind of laser.

      " extended range SeaRAM"

      We have extended range SeaRAMs. They're called ESSM. We have extended range ESSMs. They're called Standards.

    2. Its important to note that the original 747 based Airborne laser was designed to kill ballistic missiles as they launched. It would shoot down at them from altitude as they struggled to accelerate off the launch pad. The Missile would be a big target with all it's stages still attached and loaded. The wreckage would come back down on the hostile country.

      To recap; a slowish (mach 2-4), hot, bus-sized target that can't manuever, and is full of volatile fuel.

      When you're shooting at a reintry vehicle, you're trying to hit a refrigerator to washing machine sized target moving at 2-10 Kilometers per-second. And then damn thing splits into 3-10 warheads, plus chaff, plus decoys, plus extraneous guidance and steering parts it doesn't need any more.

    3. There's basically two different target sets: ballistic and cruise missiles. They each have radically different characteristics and flight profiles.

      In addition, I think the AF was looking at possibly engaging even smaller, A2A missiles but I'm not completely sure. That would be even harder.

      Shooting down ballistic missiles as they launch would require a laser equipped aircraft to be continuously circling somewhere near the enemy. During a war, that seems unlikely. During peace, that seems either unnecessary or incredibly difficult and expensive.

    4. "We're nowhere near the Star Wars instantaneous vaporization kind of laser."

      True. But, even with a high-powered laser, it still takes some finite amount of time to acquire the target, point the laser at target, kill the target, and repeat the process for the next target. And, given the speeds and ranges involved, a single laser can only kill so many missiles before one finally hits your ship.

      So, when does a laser become a practical defense against high-speed anti-ship missiles? When it can take out 6 missiles? 8? 12? Some other number?

    5. "missiles could penetrate their thinner top armour,"

      When it becomes a Star Wars weapon … which is to say, never.

    6. "Shooting down ballistic missiles as they launch would require a laser equipped aircraft to be continuously circling somewhere near the enemy. During a war, that seems unlikely. During peace, that seems either unnecessary or incredibly difficult and expensive."

      If you look at the timeframe in which YAL-1 was deployed, I'm of the opinion that it was too overly focused against the threat of North Korean ballistic missile launches. The theoretical use case I see would be staging several YAL-1s on patrol orbits in South Korean airspace, where they'd be able to look into North Korea, and where you'd have USAF and ROKAF fighters as a buffer to North Korean fighters trying to shoot down the YAL-1s.

      Theoretically doable, but not what I would call a viable CONOPS (and that's before we get into the technical issues.)

  7. Current lasers are in the kilowatt range, the recent US navy laser is rated at 150kW. I'd imagine that once lasers get to megawatt power ranges (1000kW+) then even with attenuation, enough power will still get to the target to do damage that is material in the context of time and range of target.
    Probably in the next 5 years that will be done, many ships may be able to generate that kind of power but it may be a while longer before aircraft can given size limitations. So maybe in 15 years they may reasonably common on navy ships but probably still not aircraft.

    1. "Probably in the next 5 years that will be done,"

      That was, literally, the post !!!!!! Lasers are ALWAYS just a few years away. Yeah, I know we've said that for the last several decades but, this time, they're just a few years away!!!!!! :)

      I'm not making fun of you. It's possible you're right but consider how long people have been making that exact claim? I don't think anything has changed.

      If you're knowledgeable about lasers - and it sounds like you may be - then consider all the practical problems that still need to be overcome to produce a real world, shipboard laser. It's not enough just to build a lab laser that can, with megawatt power, destroy a given thickness of steel. We still have to solve a lot of practical problems:

      1. Fire control. We do not have the precise fire control needed to maintain a contact spot on a high sub-sonic or supersonic missile that is in terminal evasive maneuvers. Yes, we have gyro-stabilized mounts but they're stabilized to produce 'hits' that are reasonably consistent within dozens of feet. For a laser, we need stabilization that will produce 'hits' that are 100% perfect within, what, a centimeter? We're not even remotely capable of that.

      2. While we may be able to produce ships that can produce a megawatt power, the problem is to produce it continuously. For example, the Ford class EMALS has to use giant flywheels (a capacitor, essentially) to store up the power for sequential cat shots and it cannot supply that power continuously. So, lots of real world power problems.

      3. Range. A laser range is infinite (well, at least until attenuation renders the beam less than harmful) and that means there can't be any ship or aircraft anywhere along the beam path. This precludes laser use on any target within the naval group's perimeter and, depending on the location of friendly air support, may preclude laser use at all.

      4. Construction. Since it takes around ten years to design and build the first of a new class of ship, we're looking at ten years, at best, to build a new ship with the power capability you're describing, even if we started today. So, there goes the five year estimate just due to construction timelines!

      I'm afraid your five year estimate will become just another example for the next time I write this post but, hey, who knows - maybe this will be the time it actually happens.

    2. I guess the main points were that
      1) a lot of problems had to be solved to get to a 150kW class laser. It may happen that a megawatt class laser is reached in 5 years or so if the current pace of power output growth continues. Megawatt class lasers won't be piddly drone killers.

      2) Also, if the power that reaches the target is significantly greater, which megawatt class lasers would provide, then it helps mitigate the other things, like time on target, which can be far less to do mission kill damage.

      Of course all the other problems that you mentioned will still remain but they too will likely be incrementally chipped away at in the next 5 or so years and after, hence why i allowed another ten yrs after for some mk1 'mass produced' version.
      I'd say that lasers and other ciws systems would augment and complement other each other for quite some time though still after that.

    3. For sake of discussion, let's say your vision of a megawatt power laser is realized in five years and all the other problems I cited are solved and I win the lottery. Okay, that one about the lottery doesn't belong but it's probably more likely! Okay, so we've got the ultimate megawatt laser with perfect fire control. … … … Now, the counter measures cycle begins. I've cited some likely counters like thicker shields on missiles, rotating missiles, reflective surfaces, sacrificial nose cones, and many more that I'm not qualified to think of. Those are all VERY EASY to implement. So, there goes the usefulness of the laser in a heartbeat. It only took us a hundred years to develop the laser and the enemy develops the counters in a few weeks. Now, we're looking at another hundred years to develop even bigger lasers!

      Setting aside the development of the laser, I just see the development of countermeasures as being far, far too easy and cheap to make effective lasers a reality until we get to Star Wars, instantaneous vaporization kind of levels.

    4. "3. Range. A laser range is infinite (well, at least until attenuation renders the beam less than harmful) and that means there can't be any ship or aircraft anywhere along the beam path. This precludes laser use on any target within the naval group's perimeter and, depending on the location of friendly air support, may preclude laser use at all."

      As a practical matter I'm of the opinion that this is just a different flavor of deconfliction wrinkle. The obvious reaction, to me, is to ensure that friendly aircraft aren't in the line of fire - if you're firing interceptor SAMs at sea skimming AShMs while aircraft are also flying that low to intercept said AShMs... you have problems, Navy. :V

      Also, if we're assuming that this is a point defense weapon, then arguably the effective range of the lasers, in the tactical sense, are going to be about 25km or so, out to the radar horizon, since these are line of sight weapons.

  8. Going off at a tangent, anyone know (guess) when a workable rail gun will be feasible? Seems to me that this could be a really useful technology

    1. We've posted on this. They're not really as useful as one might think. What specific target set do you see them being used against?

    2. I'd have thought traditional AA. "Lob" a projectile into the area you want then it goes bang and hopefully stops and drones or missiles near by. Dumb but relatively cheap.

    3. If you're talking about using rail guns for anti-air, the problem is that they are inert rounds and require contact to kill. That's very challenging.

      If you add guidance, explosive warheads, fragmentation, and fuzing then you've negated the major benefit of rail guns which is the dirt cheap nature of inert rounds. Now, your rounds are $50K apiece, or whatever. Further, you now have the problem of hardening all those components to withstand the acceleration and stress imposed by a rail gun launch. Hardening makes the round even more expensive.

      Another benefit of inert rounds is that they're inert and don't require a magazine and can't explode if the ship gets hit. Once you add an explosive warhead, you need a magazine and the rounds are susceptible to exploding if the ship gets hit.

      Rail guns are appealing in concept but there are lots of factors that render them far less useful than one might think.

  9. Putting the way back machine in gear this morning: WestPac 1972 - the good ship Rathburne deployed from Pearl with two test systems for evaluation. One, an infrared camera system (worked great- watching pre- dawn carrier launches was a blast) and a laser range and targeting system. Not so great. In fact it was a back to the drawing board situation. It seems the system couldn’t work well with high temps and high humidity. This was August in the Tonkin Gulf. I’ve been a little skeptical about lasers since then, but what do I know?

    1. "way back machine"

      Is this a reference to Mr. Peabody's WAYBAC machine? If so, a salute to you for remembering!

      Good historical experience. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Mr. Peabody, Sherman, among my favorites from from long ago

  11. Why not let the Zumwalts be the test beds for lasers and rail guns and other such concepts? They don't seem to be good for anything else.

    There was an article in the Naval Institute Proceedings about sending one to the Med and one to WestPac as future fleet flagships, and keeping the third in San Diego as part of a development squadron. That makes more sense than anything else I've seen published.


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