Laser weapons have been key to the Next-Gen Air Domination Program since the beginning

Recently declassified US Air Force documents point out that the service considers laser directed energy weaponsfor use on fighter aircraft in defensive and offensive roles, as a core capability within its larger framework Next Generation Air Dominance Program, or NGAD. They also highlight past work to understand potential countermeasures to these weapons and to better integrate them into air-to-air combat simulations and modeling. All of this is also remarkable given the various US military efforts underway today that appear to be tied, at least in part, to the use of lasers in future dogfights, who The war zone has closely followed.

The new information about the Air Force’s interest in laser weapons in relation to the NGAD program comes from partially redacted portions of an Air Combat Command (ACC) internal history covering the period between October 2014 and September 2016 , who The war zone obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The NGAD program, as it exists today, has its immediate origins in projects conducted by the Air Force in cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) during the period 2014-2015, especially the Aerospace Innovation Initiative.

NGAD is a future comprehensive air combat initiative that includes work on a crewed stealth combat aircraft and various unmanned platformsas well as new weapons, sensors, engines, and networking and combat management capabilities, among others. It is expected that all of these developments will eventually form a collaborative whole.

An artist’s conception of a sixth-generation stealth fighter aircraft armed with a laser-directed energy weapon. Northrop Grumman

“Although the ACC had no actually funded registration program in the tech community (or for that matter, had an official documented requirement for any), 2015-2016 saw a rapid increase in interest in new weapons based on the directed energy science (DE),” explains the 2014-2016 ACC History. “The potential lethality of all DE weapons under development across [U.S. government] laboratories and industry in FY15-16 [Fiscal Year 2015-2016] ran the gamut from devices designed to defeat threats simply by breaking communication locks and/or blinding guidance systems, right up to the total destruction of the respective hostile assets.

The main focus of the project so far has been the development of a laser directed energy weapon in pod primarily intended to destroy incoming missiles, but the AFRL has noted the potential for the system, or a variant or derivative of it, to have offensive capabilities for years now. Self-defense and possibly wider visual range close combat will likely be the first practical use cases for airborne laser weapons, although their capabilities can certainly expand over time.

A 2013 AFRL briefing slide showing plans to develop and test laser-directed energy weapons, which could eventually have offensive, as well as defensive, roles through 2029. USAF

The newly declassified ACC story references two key drivers of the SHiELD program, but details on the first of them are fully redacted.

“The second driver leading to SHiELD came in the form of a series of meetings between key AFRL and ACC leaders throughout 2014 and 2015. The first was in 2014. Lt Col [Redacted] and ACC Chief Scientist Dr. Janet Fender traveled to Kirtland AFB [Air Force Base] and directly approached lower-level project officers,” the internal historical record reads. “There they discussed the first unpublished results of the HEL-FAD study, communicated the wishes of the ACC with regard to the LWS [laser weapon systems]and basically asked for valid reasons as to why they might not [emphasis from the original document] to be met.”

HEL-FAD stands for a study that was officially titled High Energy Laser (HEL) Weapons for Protection of the Future Air Dominance Fighter. Footnotes in the 2014-2016 ACC History indicate that a second draft was completed in 2015, but it is unclear if a final draft was ever officially completed.

“After some initial skepticism about feasibility from the AFRL ‘worker bees’ involved, the lab joined us and began aggressively pursuing initial design solutions,” the story adds.

A model of a directed energy weapon pod being tested in a wind tunnel. USAF

“The coordination process…(and SHiELD itself) was important both because it represented the first time that so much money (at least $300-500 million…none of which was funded by ACC) from ABL [Airborne Laser] had been allocated for a particular DE project, and because the relationship between AFRL and MAJCOMS [Major Commands] traditionally worked in the reverse [emphasis in the original] direction,” he continues. “In the case of SHiELD, it was CC who went to the lab and specifically requested a fairly detailed proposal for a specific ATD.”

airborne laser, later renamed Airborne Laser Testbed, was a test program focused on ballistic missile defense in the late 1990s and 2000s, which centered on a heavily modified Boeing 747 airliner armed with a very large chemical laser. The basic concept behind the aircraft, which was designed the YAL-1A, was to provide a means of shooting down enemy ballistic missiles in the initial start-up phase, as you can read more about here. The program was eventually canceled in 2011 amid rising costs and questions about its practicality, and the aircraft was scrapped entirely in 2014.

Since then, there have been tremendous advances in more compact solid-state lasers, such as the one Lockheed Martin developed for SHiELD, as well as other related key technologies, such as control systems and beam steering, thermal manipulation and energy sources. You can read more about how Lockheed Martin, in particular, worked to take practical aerial laser weapons from the realm of science fiction to reality in this past war zone characteristic.

So far, AFRL’s plan for the SHiELD pod, at least initially, remains to first test it on legacy combat aircraft, such as like the F-15 and F-16. However, internal history clearly shows that the ACC had a significant interest, at least in the period 2014-2016, particularly in the development of a laser-directed energy weapon to be integrated on a future sixth-grade combat aircraft. generation. We don’t know what other airborne laser directed energy weapon programs may have operated alongside SHiELD then or now, especially in the classified area as well.

“The ACC has stated that the ATD will inform the Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for the Next Generation Fighter Aircraft (Future Air Dominance Fighter) planned for 2017,” according to the story. Further, “in order to meet the ACC’s 2023 timeline to inform decisions on the development strategy for the next generation of air dominance, the AFRL stated that it would be necessary to complete all three phases. [of the ATD]demonstrating full Laser Weapon System (LWS) capability at Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 6.”

The unredacted portions of the 2014-2016 internal history also include certain observations and conclusions, as well as recommendations, drawn from the classified draft HEL-FAD study. This provides further insight into the Air Force’s laser directed energy weapon plans.

“The efficiency of DE, KE [kinetic energy]and LO (low observable) capabilities to provide air superiority to 6th generation aircraft were assessed, “according to a table partially redacted from history.” Assessments were made of the mission potential and technical feasibility of a HEL system on board a future multi-role high performance platform such as the FX [Future Air Dominance Fighter].”


“Continue laser vulnerability and effects assessment work to explore a broader set of targets and alternative aiming points on those targets. Conduct an assessment of potential enemy laser countermeasures or its pointing system and follow-up”, was one of the study projects. recommendations. “Continue to develop and integrate HEL engagement models into BRAWLER to ensure HEL engagement enhancements are in place for AoA Air Dominance 2030+.”


It’s not entirely clear what “BRAWLER” refers to here, but the Joint Air Force Survival Program (JASP) of the Air Force, Navy, and Air Force has an air-to-air combat simulation tool. with this name. It would make sense that these parties would all be interested in integrating high energy laser directed energy weapons both as friendly capabilities and as potential threats in air combat simulations and other types of modelization.

It remains to be seen how long it will be before we see a crewed sixth-generation combat aircraft, whether in a pod or directly integrated into the airframe. As The war zone repeatedly noted, it is very unlikely that the crewed combat aircraft under development under NGAD will be look or behave like a traditional fighter plane, to begin with. An autonomous pod-based laser-directed energy weapon system could also find its way to other platforms, manned or unmanned.

A composite of recently released Lockheed Martin concept art showing a design that is at least intended to replace the sixth generation fighter aircraft being developed under NGAD. Lockheed Martin

The Air Force continues to pursue SHiELD as an ATD program, but it has suffered technical and other delays, and flight testing of the first examples of the full system is not expected to begin until at least 2023. The Air Force is developing separately a laser directed energy weapon for integration on the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, but it is a much larger system that would not fit a fighter-sized gunship.

This would all seem well in line with recommendations to continue work related to laser countermeasures and counter-countermeasures, as well as just continuing to explore how laser-directed energy weapons could be used in air combat, which we know now that they are contained in the 2015 HEL-FAD Study Project.

Regardless, the portions of the 2014-2016 ACC internal report that the Air Force has now released clearly indicate that the service is considering laser-directed energy weapons on future stealth combat aircraft. advanced, and possibly on other platforms, as a key part of its future NGAD ecosystem. .

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Ryan H. Bowman