Defensive fighter-mounted LANCE can burn out sensitive missile electronics while promising future offensive air-to-ground capabilities
The US Air Force has just received its first fighter-mounted laser weapon, a military advance that looks like a page out of space science fiction.
The Warzone reported this month that US military contractor Lockheed Martin delivered its first Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE) airborne laser weapon to the US Air Force in February.
Lockheed Martin notes that the LANCE is one-sixth the size of the previous laser weapons the firm produced for the US Army and it has reduced power requirements so that it may be mounted within a fighter belly pod.
While the LANCE’s power output is unknown, The Warzone estimates it to be below 100 kilowatts. Considering LANCE’s estimated power output, it may be deployed as a defensive weapon that works by burning out the sensitive seeker heads of air-to-air missiles.
Although LANCE may be powerful enough against incoming air-to-air missiles, it may not be sufficient for missile defense purposes, especially against the growing threat of China and Russia’s hypersonic weapons.
In the 2016 book Directed Energy Weapons, Bahman Zohuri notes that an air defense laser weapon designed to shoot down airplanes, helicopters and missiles should be in the megawatt range, capable of precisely targeting sensitive components and delivering sustained fire until the target is destroyed.
It is not yet known which type of aircraft the LANCE would be mounted, but concept art by Lockheed Martin shows the weapon positioned on an F-16 fighter. The National Interest notes LANCE or future weapons of its type may be mounted on F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
Such weapons could improve these aircraft’s already formidable air-to-air capabilities, as lasers are faster than any air-to-air missile. The National Interest also mentions that laser weapons may also increase the stealth characteristics of these aircraft, as they could reduce their radar cross section (RCS) should they be used in place of easily detectable conventional weapons placed on external hardpoints.
A 2007 Congressional Research Service report notes that previous US efforts to create an aircraft-mounted laser, the Airborne Laser (ABL) weapon, failed due to size, weight and beam jitter issues.
An ABL-type weapon was too big for feasible operational deployment, as it takes up excessive amounts of space aboard ships and aircraft and could hardly be mounted on land vehicles.
The ABL’s six laser modules also ended heavier than anticipated, reducing aircraft range and increased requirements for aerial refueling, adding stress to the already overburdened US aerial refueling fleet. In addition, the weapon also suffered from beam control jitter due to environmental factors, resulting in loss of laser power towards the target. These issues resulted in the ABL’s early retirement in 2014.
However, recent technological advances in laser technology mean that the aircraft-mounted laser weapon concept may have become feasible again. In a 2020 media interview, Dr Rob Afzal, a Lockheed Martin senior fellow on laser and sensor systems, said that laser fiber optics and spectral beam combination made the miniaturization of laser weapons possible.
He notes that fiber optics were much more efficient at converting electrical power into laser power and that fiber-laser devices could be weaponized by scaling up their power. Spectral beam combination that focuses several small laser beams into one powerful beam has also enabled the creation of smaller laser weapons that can be mounted on aircraft, vehicles and ships.
These technological advancements may make the LANCE a feasible tactical laser weapon with significant operational implications. A 2014 Journal of Aerospace Technology and Management study notes that aircraft-mounted lasers can provide an active defense for aircraft, shooting down incoming air-to-air missiles. While present technological limitations confine the LANCE to a defensive role, it doesn’t mean it can’t be deployed in offensive roles in the future.
In an offensive role, the study mentions that these lasers can be used against ground targets, specifically sensitive and fragile electronic targets such as radio antennas, satellite dishes and power transformers, with minimal collateral damage.
The lasers could also be used in counterinsurgency operations, targeting insurgents with extreme precision that could not be achieved with current precision-guided munitions, potentially reducing civilian casualties. The study also notes the increasing miniaturization of laser weapons, which may allow them to be mounted on drones and other unmanned platforms.