The Central Role of Laser Weapons in America’s Sixth Generation Fighter Program

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The U.S. Air Force’s ambitious sixth generation fighter program is expected to see laser weapons form a central part of its arsenal, according to new declassified reports. While combat lasers are increasingly widely used today, the most notable example being Israel’s new Iron Beam short ranged air defence system, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in cooperation with the Air Force has invested heavily in developing such weapons for fighters since at least the mid 2010s. Such weapons are expected to be significantly cheaper to use for intercepting low cost enemy rockets, missiles and drones, where use of interceptor missiles today is considered unaffordable. They will also allow fighters to avoid the limitations on their gun and missile payloads, potentially allowing each aircraft to stay in a fight considerably longer. In visual range engagements laser weapons can provide a potentially tremendous advantage due to their expected ability to destroy targets near instantaneously after a lock is formed. 

It is likely that lasers will be carried not only by America’s sixth generation fighter itself, but also by accompanying drones, providing a viable replacements to short range infrared guided air to air missiles such as the AIM-9X. The first laser weapons developed for combat aircraft are expected to be integrated as additional external pods, and while the NGAD fighter’s laser is likely to be integral its technologies could be used to provide laser pods to older fighters such as Cold War era F-15s and F-16s. As the U.S. Air Force increasingly seeks to use fighters for missile defence roles, allowing them to contribute to countering key asymmetric assets relied on by countries with lesser conventional capabilities such as Russia and North Korea, laser weapons could play a vital role in such efforts. The Airborne Laser Testbed program developed from the late 1990s sought to integrate an anti missile laser onto a Boeing 747 for such purposes, and while the program was cancelled in 2011 following America’s financial crisis, a miniaturised successor will almost certainly draw heavily on R&D work done on the program for over a decade. 

A technology demonstrator for America’s sixth generation fighter reportedly made its first flight in 2020, with the U.S. in a neck to neck race with  China for superiority in this next generation. Alongside lasers the aircraft is expected to integrate hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, new AIM-260 air to air missiles and highly potent new electronic warfare systems. Other competitors are expected to rely on integrating sixth generation features onto their older fifth and fourth generation aircraft, with the American F-35 and Chinese J-20 fifth generation jets both expected to benefit from a range of sixth generation technologies including laser weapons as these become available. The extreme projected cost of the NGAD fighter, in the the hundreds of millions of dollars per airframe, means it will likely be procured in very limited numbers and that integration of its technologies, including laser weapons, onto a wider range of airframes remains vital.


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