Lockheed Martin preps to mount laser weapon on a fighter jet

The world’s largest weapons maker has a $26 million Air Force contract to develop the technology.

The Washington Post

For Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons maker, the $26 million Air Force contract is something of a pittance, easily overlooked in a sea of massive, multi-mission-dollar awards. The aim of the contract, to develop a laser weapon that could fit on a fighter jet, could also be a fool’s errand that was considered impossible just a few years ago.

But if the company is able to develop the technology, it would mark a major breakthrough in laser weapons that many think is already starting to transform warfare. And in another sign of the advancement of laser technology, General Atomics this week was awarded a nearly $9 million contract to develop a laser that could be put on a drone.

The Pentagon has been keenly interested in lasers for the past several years. Unlike bullets or bombs or missiles, they sizzle instead of go boom and can limit damage to a specific target, while limiting collateral damage. Lasers travel at the speed of light and are relatively inexpensive. And with enough power, they can fire for long periods of time without ever running out of ammunition.

On a fighter jet, they could be particularly effective, able to even shoot down missiles, officials said. Think of it this way: A weapon that fires at the speed of light would be traveling on a fighter jet potentially flying faster than the speed of sound to shoot down a missile also traveling at supersonic velocity.

All of which would represent a major leap forward in the speed and precision in modern weaponry — a “new era,” as Robert Afzal, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin, said.

“This technology is really rapidly evolving,” he said. “It’s remarkable the progress we’ve been making.”

But lasers require vast amounts of energy to operate, and discharge a lot of heat, which means they need space. Getting them to be compact enough to fit on a fighter jet is an enormous challenge — not to mention being able to withstand the turbulence and G-loads that a fighter jet generates.

Lockheed makes the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the stealthy fighter jet that has become the most expensive weapons system in the history of the Pentagon. But the company wouldn’t say if the laser test would be on an F-35 or another fighter.

In 2014, the Navy put a laser on the USS Ponce, testing it against small, swarming boats. Since then, as the technology continued to progress, the military has armed trucks and Humvees with lasers. General Atomics, which makes the Predator and the MQ-9B drones, was awarded a contract from the Missile Defense Agency to develop a laser that could go on a drone. The company declined to comment on the program.

Raytheon, meanwhile, has even put a laser on a militarized dune buggy. Earlier this year, it outfitted an Apache helicopter with a laser weapon for the first time.

That demonstration showed significant progress in the technology, said Ben Allison, the director of Raytheon’s high-energy laser product line.

“Lasers being deployed out of the laboratory environment is one of the large hurdles we have to overcome in this industry,” he said. “In the lab, you’re able to control the environment, even humidity and dust. And the challenges of being able to transition that from the lab to a moving platform, whether on the ground to an airborne environment, are pretty steep.”

It’s even more difficult on a fighter jet. Under the contract, Lockheed would need to demonstrate and test a laser on a jet by 2021, which was considered a long shot just a few years ago.

“Four or five years ago, we would have said maybe one day, but it’s going to be really tough,” Afzal said.

Now, he said, “that day is coming.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Roei Ganzarski, CEO of magniX, poses with a production electric engine, the magni500, at the  company's new office on Seaway Boulevard on Monday, Jan. 18, 2020 in Everett, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Maker of electric airplane engines gets $74M NASA grant

MagniX of Everett is one of two companies tapped to advance electric propulsion systems to power aircraft.

Rendering of the new terminal that Propeller Airports plans to build at Paine Field in Everett. The terminal, which will serve the general aviation community, will replace Castle & Cooke Aviation's existing building at the Snohomish County-owned airport. (Propeller Airports LLC)
Propeller Airports to acquire Castle & Cooke at Paine Field

Propeller, which owns the nearby passenger terminal, plans a new complex for private aviation.

A Boeing 737 Max 10 prepares to take off in Seattle on June 18, 2021. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Chona Kasinger.
Boeing cash shines while 787’s factory woes weigh on results

Restarting Dreamliner deliveries that have been halted for months is key to a financial turnaround.

Everett Farmer’s Market canceled Sunday due to weather

Organizers cited a high-wind advisory. It is to reopen Oct. 31 for the final market of the season.

David Simpson (left) and Scott Murphy.
Port of Everett candidates spar over transparency

An incumbent, David Simpson, is challenged by Everett City Councilmember Scott Murphy.

FILE - In this May 26, 2020, file photo, a sign at the headquarters for the Washington state Employment Security Department is shown at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Washington state's rush to get unemployment benefits to residents who lost jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak left it vulnerable to criminals who made off with hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Washington’s unemployment rate in September was 4.9%

Employers added 17,600 jobs last month, a 7.3% increase over August.

With the Olympic mountains in the background, the first passenger flight by Alaska Airlines Flight 2878 departs for Portland on opening day of the Paine Field Terminal on Monday, March 4, 2019 in Everett, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Alaska Airlines stalls plan for extra flights in Everett

Business has been sluggish, but the airline says it will offer 12 flights a day at Paine Field in the new year.

Hillside homes in Mukilteo are seen from the ferry line on Oct. 20. (Andrea Brown / The Herald)
Mukilteo asks for input on housing density, and it’s complicated

Here’s a guide to what voters should know about the advisory ballot measure. What does it actually do?

People hold signs in protest of the vaccine mandate after Boeing announced it would terminate workers who do not comply on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Some Boeing workers protest in Everett over vaccine mandate

The Boeing Company announced earlier this week that its workers must be vaccinated by Dec. 8.

FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, March 11, 2019, rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines plane crash south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The number of deaths in major air crashes around the globe fell by more than half in 2019 according to a report released Wednesday Jan. 1, 2020, by the aviation consultancy To70, revealing the worst crash for the year was an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX on March 10 that lost 157 lives. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, FILE)
Former Boeing test pilot pleads not guilty in 737 Max case

He’s the first person to be charged with a crime in connection with the Indonesia and Ethiopia crashes.

FILE - In this March 14, 2019 file photo, Ethiopian relatives of crash victims mourn at the scene where the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff killing all 157 on board, near Bishoftu, south-east of Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia. Relatives of some of the passengers who died in the crash will mark the two-year anniversary of the disaster on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, by seeking a reversal of government orders that let Boeing 737 Max jets fly again.  (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File)
Boeing pilot involved in Max testing is indicted in Texas

He’s accused of giving the FAA false information about systems that played a role in two deadly crashes.

Top (L-R): Kim Daughtry, Steve Ewing. Bottom (L-R): Gary Petershagen, Marcus Tageant.
Developers court Lake Stevens council incumbents with over $20K

Over half of the campaign dollars for four candidates came from people tied to real estate or property development.