WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is on a path to adopt high-powered lasers on fighter jets and special operations gunships, but it’s still on the fence about how to mount such weaponry on its tanker fleet, service officials said Monday.

Putting a laser weapon on a KC-135 tanker is an effort that’s “still in the infancy stage,” said Tom Lockhart, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office.

The lab recently conducted an assessment with Air Mobility Command to locate an area on the KC-135 on which it could attach a laser pod, he told reporters during a roundtable at the Pentagon.

“The next phase [is]: Does that make sense, does it make sense to put a pod on there, or do you want to go complete and do a system integration of a laser itself?” Lockhart said. “You can do it a little bit different from just hanging a pod on there. You could integrate it with the rest of the systems.”

Increasing the survivability of tankers has been a pet project of Air Mobility Command head Gen. Carlton Everhart. Most refueling aircraft were designed without defensive systems, but Everhart has said future conflicts could require tankers to move closer to the fight, necessitating the adoption of situational awareness upgrades or even more intricate systems like laser weapons.

Potential applications include countering unmanned aircraft or cruise missiles.

“The expectation is to have this capability available to our war fighters within two years,” Everhart told Defense News sister publication Air Force Times in November. “It’s time to move out and show we’re serious about this to our airmen.”

Lockhart described the KC-135 integration as a parallel effort with the Air Force’s best-known laser program, the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD, which aims to test a laser pod on an F-15 fighter by 2021.

Lockheed Martin is developing SHiELD under a $26.3 million contract. That high-powered fiber laser will be integrated with a pod, which will power and cool the laser, and a beam-control system, which will direct the laser onto the target.

Tests of a 50-kilowatt SHiELD laser will start this summer, followed by the first flight tests next year, said Jeff Stanley, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering.

Whether the Air Force opts to attach a podded laser to the KC-135 or integrate it within the airframe itself, the development of a podded system of for the SHiELD program will offer valuable insight about how to stabilize laser weapons and drive down their size, weight and power use.

“With SHiELD, you’re learning a lot about targeting and tracking beyond just the pod itself,” Lockhart said. “What do you need to actually keep the laser on the target? And so that’s some of the stuff we have to learn as part of SHIELD, whether it goes on a KC-135 or on an F-15, you still have to understand those kind of control mechanisms.”

Beyond SHiELD and the KC-135 demonstration, the service is continuing to develop a roll-on laser capability for Air Force Special Operations Command’s AC-130J gunship. A test plan is still in the works, but will likely be concurrent with the SHiELD program, Lockhart 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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