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Drones and Lasers: The Perfect Pair, or Star-Crossed Lovers?

Written by on Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

If you don’t mind, I’m going to nerd out for a little bit and talk about X-wings. In the Star Wars movies, these spacefaring ships served as the main dog fighters for the Rebel Alliance in their desperate struggle against the oppressive Empire. There are two things that audience members associate with the X-wing: the iconic x-shaped wing pattern that gives the spacecraft its name, and its four laser cannons.

The US Air Force isn’t quite up to the level where they’re sending battle-ready spacecraft into conflicts against galactic oppressors, but it is fairly close to building aircraft equipped with laser weapons. Well, kinda. The US is on the verge of deploying flying lasers, but government officials just can’t seem to find the money for it.

Believe it or not, the US has already built and successfully flown a laser-shooting aircraft. Officially called the Airborne Laser Test Bed (ALTB) and unofficially called the “lightsaber” (another Star Wars reference), this plane was a modified 747 equipped with a directed energy weapon. The US government originally built the ALTB as a way to test airborne laser capabilities with the eventual goal of developing a mobile laser platform that could shoot down missiles.

While that goal was certainly geeky enough to make nerds everywhere froth at the mouth, it didn’t quite live up to expectations. The ALTB only manged to take down one missile in all of its tests, leaving every other missile unscathed. Elected officials might have been willing to overlook the billion-dollar program if it had a better track record. One popped missile just isn’t worth that many zeroes.

So, they killed the program and send America’s first (and possibly last) lightsaber to an airplane graveyard in Arizona. The ALTB has been collecting dust, but that hasn’t stopped laser enthusiasts from trying to strap lasers to everything else capable of generating lift. There was chatter earlier this year about equipping Boeing’s massive Phantom Eye drone with a high-powered laser, but that plan never quite got off the ground.

The Missile Defense Agency wanted to secure $44.5 million in order to further develop laser technology, but members of the Senate got their three piece suits in a bunch when they found out that it would be part of a no-bid deal. High contract prices and the stretched national budget don’t really mix well, so Boeing and the Missile Defense Agency both had to shelve their collective dream of launching a new X-wing version 2.0.

It seems like the USAF can appropriately act like the little brother that it is: “The Navy is getting laser ships! I want laser ships, too! It’s not fair!”

That’s true, but drawing comparisons between laser systems with the Navy and the USAF is a bit like comparing apples and laser-equipped oranges. Finding the space and the energy that you need to fire a laser weapon from a Naval vessel is fairly easy — those ships are gigantic. Building an aircraft that can generate enough power to keep a plane aloft all while pumping tons of energy into a laser system is a completely different story.

It’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen with the future of laser technology. It seems that every time laser technology takes two steps forward, it has to take one-and-a-half step backward. It either has to wait for other technology that it relies on to catch up or it gets strangled with budget cuts. Can the US develop lasers that are both reliable and powerful enough to take down enemy aircraft? Yes; it seems that way. Will lasers ever reach a point that they will be lightweight and cheap enough that sticking them onto jets will be worth it? Scientists will have to get back to you on that one.

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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