Two years ago, news leaked of a military project sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The goal was to put lasers on fighter jets. While many were questioning the need for lasers on jets, DARPA officials cited the need for even greater precision in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.
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What’s wrong with traditional guns? Guns have barrels that typically protrude from either the wings or fuselage of an attack aircraft. This produces drag and complicates the profile of stealth fighters. DARPA wants a system that will “counteract the effects of turbulence caused by the protrusion of a turret from an aircraft’s fuselage.”
And guns require ammunition that adds to overall weight and runs out. Lasers can be powered by the on-board systems of the aircraft itself.
And so the project began in earnest. Lockheed Martin AC-130 gunships will be equipped with lasers by 2020.This is a solid first step, but the AC-130 is hardly a stealth aircraft. And there’s very little about it that could be called aerodynamic. In fact, it is an airplane that can only fly in combat zones where our Air Force has complete control of the skies.
So installing lasers on the AC-130 is seen as more of a proof-of-concept for other aircraft. A a 200 kilowatt laser canon may be able to replace the M102 howitzer.
So how long will it be before lasers are standard equipment for jets like the F-35? “As soon as we could miniaturize them,” said USMC Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh. The Marines plan to equip Cobra helicopters, the MV-22 Ospreys, and the F-35.
Who is the most logical candidate for the contract? Lockheed Martin is squarely in investors’ sights. Lockheed is partnering in the development of the laser guns, and also makes the F-35 fighters. The technology, though, should spread widely through the military once testing proves it is reliable.