An Introduction to Lasers on Fighter Jets:
I enjoy reading about advances in military technology, which explains why I’m taking the time to write about putting lasers on fighter jets. To me, military technology is not only interesting but also relevant to America’s geopolitical situation. Because of that, I often read the full collection of articles on RealClearDefense. Those articles are informative, interesting, and about a wide variety of topics, such as how the US Air Force soon could be putting lasers on fighter jets.
So, yesterday evening I began reading the daily collection of articles. One that I found very interesting was the article titled “U.S. Air Force F-35s, F-15s and F-16s Might Soon Have Laser Weapons.” It was written by Sebastien Roblin and is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re the type, like me, that’s excited by the idea of the Air Force lasers on fighter jets.
In this article, Roblin does an excellent job of discussing the Air Force program to put lasers on its planes, the potential benefits of that program, and its potential pitfalls.
The Laser Program:
The US military has long been interested in using laser weapons on its planes. However, that has not been a practical idea until very recently. Because lasers have traditionally been very bulky and relied upon large power sources, it was not really a possibility to put them on planes. The Air Force tried with its “YAL-1” program, but that program was not a success. The laser was too heavy, so there were no lasers on fighter jets then.
However, recent innovations have dramatically decreased the weight and bulkiness of laser weapons. That innovation has made them much more practical. Now, they are potentially useful to the Air Force. Because of those innovations, the Air Force has begun to explore ways to start adding lasers to its planes.
That exploration has led to successes. The “SHIELD” demonstrator weapon recently shot down a number of air-to-air missiles at the White Sands Missile Range. Although SHIELD is still bulky, the Air Force believes that they will be able to scale it down enough to put it on a plane, which is how we would get lasers on fighter jets.
Potentially, SHIELD could be added to cargo planes by this year and we could even see lasers on fighter jets by 2021. The benefits of doing that would be enormous.
The Benefits of the SHIELD Program:
So, what are the benefits or potential uses of putting lasers on fighter jets that Roblin describes? One main benefit of lasers is that the cost per shot is exceptionally low and the magazine is limitless.
As long as there is fuel to provide energy, the lasers can be used for defensive or offensive applications. The might not be useful in the War on Terror as described in Hunting in the Shadows, but they would certainly be useful in a war with China or Russia.
After the upfront cost of installation, the only cost is fuel. Rather than using multi-million dollar missile interceptors, or being defenseless other than jamming and chaff, laser-armed jets and ships can shoot down enemy missiles for a few cents or dollars a shot. That is paradigm-shifting.
Currently, missile warfare favors the attacker. The current state of military technology costs mean that interceptors cost millions of dollars, while offensive missiles are dramatically less expensive. If, however, that was shifted, then the favor would once again be in the favor of the defender. Cargo planes and bombers would not be defenseless.
Currently, less maneuverable planes such as bombers and tankers are at the mercy of fighters armed with long-range missiles. Once they are detected, they are dead. Lasers would change that by increasing the number of missiles it takes to destroy a target, and by giving planes like bombers and cargo planes a viable way to strike back at enemy planes within visual range. Fighter jets with long-range missiles would lose a large portion of their advantage because those expensive missiles could be shot down by a cheap laser used by any plane with enough power.
Additionally, enemy vehicles could be destroyed for a tiny fraction of what it currently costs to use a guided bomb or missile. JDAMs and Hellfire missiles cost tens of thousands of dollars. Also, fighter-bombers like the F-35 and F-16 can only carry a few of them. However, if they used lasers then they would have an unlimited magazine with an incredibly low cost per shot.
Putting lasers on fighter jets would lower the financial cost of war and make our planes and ships much more survivable. That would help make war more affordable, which is crucial for a cash-strapped America, and lower our casualties, which we should always strive for; lasers on fighter jets, and naval vessels and other planes, would be useful in many ways.
Despite its recent successes, Roblin says that the SHIELD program is still developing. There are potential problems and pitfalls that need to be addressed before it is a fielded system, and there is certainly much more to do before we’re putting lasers on fighter jets. One of those problems is an old one; it is still too bulky. Without being shrunk dramatically, SHIELD can’t be put on a plane. If our planes are to be made more survivable, then that needs to change.
Additionally, lasers need large amounts of power to be effective at long range. Unless SHIELD is a short-range only system, it will need to suck up a huge amount of power to be viable. That could decrease the flying range of a plane equipped with it.
Finally, lasers can only destroy one target at a time. A volley of a few missiles could potentially overwhelm the lasers on fighter jets or ships and destroy the target. SHIELD needs to be able to destroy targets quickly to be useful. If a volley of three or four missiles could overwhelm it, then it is not that useful.
However, those are problems that can be solved. While it will be difficult to solve them, it is possible. SHIELD is a useful concept for the Air Force and the US military as a whole. If correctly implemented, it will be very useful.
The Paradigm-Shifting Benefits
I enjoyed Roblin’s article because I enjoy reading about innovation. And the SHIELD program’s goal of putting lasers on fighter jets is potentially revolutionary. If correctly implemented, it will change warfare. The current state of military technology in missiles favors the attacker.
For the first time in a long while, this could shift the balance of cost and effectiveness back in favor of the defender. That means that the US could be able to more effectively overcome the Chinese and Russian A2/AD strategy. It means military expenses wouldn’t be so huge. The fiscal and military benefits of SHIELD are huge.
But the Air Force need to Remain Focused
However, those benefits will only be realized if the Air Force stays on track and learns that good is good enough. As the saying goes, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Rather than focusing on a magical silver bullet, the Air Force should focus on fielding a “good enough” system. That system should be able to defend a plane against a volley of three or four long range missiles, be somewhat effective against other planes and drones within visible range, and not decrease the range of a fighter too great. While those requirements are very subjective, they are good ones to shoot for.
In the past, the Air Force has focused on highly expensive and “perfect” systems. Systems like the B-2 bomber and F-22 fighter. Those ended up being too expensive to buy in a useful quantity. So they are only marginally useful; there just aren’t enough of them. The Air Force can’t make that mistake with the SHIELD program. It needs to put lasers on fighter jets and other planes in a cost effective way. If it is too expensive, then its utility will be limited. If, however, it is relatively inexpensive, then it will be hugely useful. It could change warfare.
Read Roblin’s article. I included the link down below. If you are interested in reading about military technology, or warfare in general, then it will interest you. It is succinct and interesting but highly informative. Additionally, Roblin does a great job of describing the SHIELD program and its usefulness without getting too into the weeds. That means the article is very readable, even for someone uninformed on the subject. Check it out!
By: Gen Z Conservative
Read about the YAL-1 program here: https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/abl/
Check out more articles on RealClearDefense: https://www.realcleardefense.com/
Read my article on the F-35 program: https://genzconservative.com/interesting-articles-the-f-35/
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