WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin will create a high-powered laser for the U.S. Air Force that will be demonstrated on a fighter jet in 2021.

The company was recently awarded a $26.3 million contract to design and build a fiber laser as part of an Air Force Research Laboratory program called Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD. That laser will be integrated with two other main subsystems: a pod that will power and cool the laser and a beam-control system, which will direct the laser onto the target.

If successful, the technology could be a game-changer. The Air Force has long desired an airborne laser so that it can take out surface-to-air and air-to-air missile threats more cheaply than current intercept methods.

Industry has struggled for about a decade to make a laser small enough to be installed on a vehicle or aircraft that was also powerful enough to be relevant on a battlefield, Rob Afzal, Lockheed’s senior fellow of laser weapon systems, said during a Tuesday phone call with reporters. However, improvements in fiber laser technology are enabling the company to miniaturize more powerful systems.

“We’re able now to put a scalable system together that’s very efficient at converting electric power into a high-power laser beam while maintaining the beam quality. And by maintaining that beam quality, that means you get the most effectiveness from your system,” he said.

“Because the system is efficient, it demands fewer resources from the platform. It demands the lowest amount of electric power and generates the lowest amount of waste heat.”

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So how powerful will Lockheed’s laser be? Afzal wouldn’t say, except that it would be in the “tens of kilowatts.” He also shied away from questions about which fighter jet will carry the laser, the range of the weapon and how the Air Force will test SHiELD during the demonstration, directing those queries to the service.

After Lockheed finishes developing and testing its laser in a series of ground tests, it will deliver it to the Air Force lab, where it will be integrated with the other SHiELD subsystems before another round of testing and integration aboard an unspecified jet, Afzal said.

Northrop Grumman is manufacturing the beam-control system, which goes by the acronym STRAFE, which stands for SHiELD Turret Research in Aero Effects. Boeing is responsible for integrating the SHiELD systems into a single pod, called Laser Pod Research and Development.

Afzal declined to comment on when Lockheed will deliver the laser or when its preliminary design review would be complete.

[US Army gets world record-setting 60-kW laser]

Lockheed has experience developing high-powered tactical lasers. Earlier this year, the company delivered a 60-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army to be integrated on the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, the service’s largest ground vehicle. It has also built a 30-kilowatt laser system that has been in the field for four years, Afzal said.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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