Defense giant Lockheed Martin, Notre Dame University, DARPA and the Air Force Research Lab have begun flight testing a streamlined and greatly miniaturized airborne laser turret that has the potential to totally transform air combat as we understand it today.
This new state-of-the-art beam control turret allows for 360 degree aiming coverage for directed energy weapons that will be flying on military aircraft in the not so distant future. In other words, this turret is able to rapidly aim at targets and focus a directed energy burst through the atmosphere at those targets to disable or destroy them, all while flying on a aircraft barreling through the sky at high-speed.
Known as the Aero-Adaptive, Aero-Optic Beam Control, or just ABC for short, Lockheed's new wonder-turret has been installed on an elderly Dassault Falcon 10 business jet for preliminary flight testing. According to Lockheed, the Aero-Adaptive part of the ABC turret relates to atmospheric turbulence compensation technologies that are integrated into it. Lockheed's press release explains:
The ABC turret system is designed to allow high-energy lasers to engage enemy aircraft and missiles above, below and behind the aircraft. Lockheed Martin's flow control and optical compensation technologies counteract the effects of turbulence caused by the protrusion of a turret from an aircraft's fuselage.
So basically, the system can sense the turbulence in the atmosphere where it is aiming and it can rapidly compensate for that turbulence so that the high-power laser does not become unfocused as it travels through that atmosphere, which would greatly limit its range. According to some sources, ABC can actually pull this off when shooting at incoming missiles that are approaching from behind, in back of the highly disturbed air caused by the aircraft's jet exhaust.
This technology is broadly known as 'adaptive optics.' Similar systems that use a laser to sense disturbances in the atmosphere between a system's optics and its target, and which utilizes an adaptive or 'deformable' mirror technology to compensate for it, have been used by cutting edge observatories, the Airborne Laser program, and other larger laser systems prior to this new and highly miniaturized laser turret's arrival.
At first, operational versions of this turret will most likely be installed on bombers, very large drones and converted cargo aircraft like the AC-130 gunship. But soon after, this system, or a slightly miniaturized version of it, will be mounted on fighter aircraft and tactical-sized unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVS).
Solid-state lasers have rapidly shrunk in size while also increasing in power and range, but the ABC turret is intended to harness these new technologies and bring them to the forefront of the air combat arena.
Take the F-35 for instance, the A and C model have a fuel tank where the B model's box-like lift-fan is located. Seeing as the lift fan uses a clutch-connected drive-shaft to power it via the F-35's primary Pratt & Whitney F135 engine, this same void could be filled with a solid state laser, accompanied by a pair of operational ABC turrets, mounted conformally on the top and on the bottom of the jet, where the lift fan doors currently are installed.
If the F-35B's lift-fan were removed, its main engine could be tapped to power a high-energy laser in a similar fashion as its lift fan already does. If less power is required, or if power could be stored in a capacitor, a fuel tank (in the case of the F-35A & C) or the F-35B's lift-fan could be removed and a laser could be installed that could be powered just through an enhanced version of the F-35's integrated power-pack.
The point is that there is a big, perfect sized hole for these ABC like laser turrets to be installed already built into the F-35 design. Additionally, when a fuel tank or lift fan is removed, an industrial air conditioner sized void would exist underneath where these turrets could be mounted, in which the guts of a solid-state laser could be installed that has gobs of potential power at hand.
Even if the ABC turret and its laser were only effective within short range, it would mean that the F-35, or any aircraft equipped with such a system, could literally shoot down missiles as they approach. The F-35's avionics suite is already more-or-less set up for this type of thing. Tying the ABC turret and its laser to the aircraft's spherical network of staring infrared cameras, known as the Distributed Aperture System, that already can track missiles and their heat signatures as they approach (and gunfire on the ground for that matter), would provide instantaneous targeting data for the aircraft's laser system. When fully integrated, such a concept would in effect create an active laser sphere-like shield around the aircraft.
Similar spherical laser shields, although much simpler ones utilizing lower powered lasers meant to blind and confuse missiles, not destroy them, arehttp://youtu.be/w0btzIvlScI already used today on many aircraft.
With a solid state laser tied to an ABC turret installed on a fighter aircraft, dogfights may become equally as futile as beyond-visual-range missile attacks. A pilot could literally just look at their target while wearing their helmet mounted display, and the laser could lock onto it and set it ablaze at the speed of light.
The on-board laser concept would give the F-35, or any aircraft adapted to such a system such as a UCAV, a sphere of protection that would be very tough to penetrate seeing as these turrets would have unlimited firepower as they run on the aircraft's engine-generated electricity alone.
You can see a glimpse of this air combat by laser future in this General Atomics Avenger UCAV promo video at around 3:45:
Such a nimble and modular laser system could also be used against ground targets. Targeting pod optics have improved remarkably over the years. High resolution imagery of targets on the ground is now available to aircrews flying at medium and even high-altitudes. Additionally, much more advanced aerial surveillance systems are on the way, some of which can see a whole town in high resolution at any given time. These systems could be used to target a laser system such as the DoD's HELLADS laser system currently in development, in a similar fashion as how precision guided munitions are targeted today.
Precision weaponry has changed the way we fight wars and has helped greatly when it comes to avoiding non-combatant casualties, yet even low-yield warheads inside the smallest of guided bombs and missiles explode and can cause unintended harm. If aircrew could just target a person holding a weapon, or a small group persons holding weapons, and take them out using 'non-kinetic' weaponry, than we can save a lot of innocent lives, not to mention money, as even a mass-produced AGM-114 Hellfire missile each cost tens of thousands of dollars per round.
Such a capability would be somewhat analogues to a phaser from Star Trek and just the psychological affect on the enemy knowing that they could erupt in flames at any moment while operating in the open could potentially be a game changer. It could also greatly alleviate the risk to human shields as air power may not be able to destroy a large target that has innocents commingled with the enemy inside, but it could shut down that facility's operations long enough for ground forces to take the building down just by parking a unmanned aircraft with a solid-state laser and an ABC turret high above. If anyone has a weapon outside the facility, or even comes and goes from it, they could be cooked in an instant with almost no chance of unintended injuries or deaths.
Just imagine how such a system could have changed the results of the recent hostilities in Gaza? Hamas rocket teams could be engaged from the air even in dense urban areas without the chance of innocent people being harmed. Conversely, the same technology could also be used to shoot down Hamas's rockets as they are launched. Such a capability could be realized via parking unmanned aircraft over Gaza that can detect the infrared plume of a rocket, and engage it before it even leaves their own territory. The ultimate Iron Dome if you will, although with this system the metaphorical dome would be over Gaza, not Israel, and the cost of shooting down a $500 dollar rocket would be the price of the energy generated on-board the aircraft, not the cost of a pair of Tamir Interceptors that cost tens of thousands of dollars each.
The same can be said when it comes to eliminating threats emanating from critical infrastructure or buildings with cultural significance. If there is a sniper atop a Mosque, than an aircraft equipped with a ABC turret and a laser could disable or kill just that sniper, leaving the Mosque totally intact. What such a system really amounts to is sniper-like ray gun that can take out individual soft targets from many thousands of feet in the air, all at the speed of light.
Since before Ronald Reagan's pie in the sci-fi sky "Star Wars" defense program of the 1980s, lasers have been slow to reach the battlefield in any role that competed with traditional kinetic weaponry. Now, some thirty years later, lasers are about to be thrust out on the modern battlefield not just for use in a defensive manner, but in an offensive one as well.
So sleep tight knowing that Star Trek like phaser technology is literally coming to a fighter jet or unmanned combat aircraft near you in the not so distant future.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com