Laser Weapons On The Battlefield Of Tomorrow: Separating Fact From Fiction

One of Lockheed’s top laser minds tells about the limits of current tech and what is needed to make lasers more prevalent on tomorrow’s battlefield.

byTyler Rogoway|
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In the first part of our interview, Dr. Rob Afzal—Lockheed Martin Senior Fellow, Laser and Sensor Systems—gave us a fascinating and highly detailed account of how laser and other directed energy weapons suddenly went from an elusive dream to reality. Now, our focus shifts from the recent past to the near future and beyond. What is on the horizon for laser weaponry and what hurdles remain that are keeping us from realizing the full potential of these revolutionary weapons concepts that were up until just recently relegated to the realm of science fiction?

Our exchange underlines how rapidly all of the various technologies that are necessary to realize an operational laser weapon are maturing, and how much more they need to mature in order to make laser weapons far more commonplace on the battlefield of the near future—including on land, at sea, and in the sky.

So, without further ado, here's the interview: 

Tyler: How do you see lasers, and even directed energy as a whole, including high-power microwave weapon systems, how do you see these non-kinetic options integrating with kinetic options [such as missiles and gun systems], whether it's at sea, on land, or in the air? What's the picture of how that looks to the guy or gal on the ground that would actually be relying on these technologies... Or even making the choices to employ them in real-time?

Rob: Yeah, so that's a great question. I'm gonna give you more of a 'visioneering' view of how we see that being done because these systems are just now going out, right? So we're going to do a lot of learning as these systems start getting put on platforms and the users are going to start using them, and those users are going to use them in ways that we haven't even envisioned, to be honest with you. 

So, I'll start with how we see it. Let's take two examples and I'll try to be brief, an Army ground-based example and a Navy ship-based example. 

Right now, the Army systems, there are a number of... these mortars, rockets, artillery... and you may be at a forward operating base, or you may be even in a mobile command system, but let's take a forward operating base, where there's a sensor network, right? There are radars that are doing situational awareness; they're spinning, they're looking, and then all of a sudden, a bunch of tracks [radar targets] start coming over. Depending on the types of threats, this could all be happening very quickly.

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So, the tracks from the radar, it says, "Look, it looks like there's a bad object coming in from this sector" and it commands the laser weapon to move its optic, so there's usually a turret, or a beam director, as we call it, which has very high-quality optics in it to project the laser beam, but also to do the acquisition and tracking piece. So, all the acquisition and tracking piece is done with cameras, for lack of a better word, in video now, in different parts of the spectrum, whether it's visible or short-wave infrared, mid-wave infrared, or long-wave infrared, it's still fundamentally a camera with video streams. So, the optics slew over and grabbed the object optically, all of a sudden, you get an image on a TV screen, on a control screen, of what the thing is.

You may be able to look at it in different parts of the spectrum, too. Then, the human can look and determine, "Oh, that is a hostile threat." You're already tracking the threat. So, now, by engaging with the laser weapon, the laser beam comes out of the same optics that you're using to track. And then the laser engages the threat and then can negate it. Or, if on the other hand, higher resolution imagery says, "No, that's benign," you don't have to engage it. So, that is kind of how the user interface will look, there's also the ability to use the optics without the laser, just to provide situational awareness, right? To use these optics to look around.

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In the Army case, there are very few systems right now that are out there that can negate rockets, artillery, and mortars. There are some kinetic systems in development. But what we see, again, is both systems probably being deployed; kinetic interceptors, as well as, we'll call them a laser interceptor, for now, that's not a common terminology, or a laser 'effector.' 

In the Navy case, it will be very similar, but you can imagine the combat system room with a bunch of... With all the many consoles, and one of them would be laser console and the combat system would cue the system again and you'd slew the optics and you look at the target. Now, something that's interesting that we're doing on the Navy program is that beyond the high energy laser to defeat the threat, we're also integrating different lasers, we call them dazzlers, which are non-lethal.

Lockheed's HELIOS system will have both a high-power laser weapon and dazzler built into a single integrated unit. , Lockheed

There may be a UAV that is looking at the fleet, and you don't want them to be able to continue to look at the fleet, but you don't really want to do a hostile act. You can turn on the dazzler laser. You're tracking the object, and you're basically shining a very bright spotlight into its cameras. Now, all of a sudden, they can't see, in a non-lethal way. So, over time, how these are all going to be used, deployed, the decision-making trees, we're going to just keep learning and the users are gonna really learn how best to use these systems.

Tyler: What are the real limitations that still exist? I mean, is it the beam attenuation and the thermal loads? Because we always hear that we want to 'scale' this stuff, we wanna be at X amount of power by this year, and we're missing some of the goals... So whether it's in the air, at sea, or on land, what are some of the biggest limitations, biggest hurdles that still exist when it comes to making these systems able to do what we've imagined them to do? From shooting down, not just UAVs and disabling small boats or C-RAM [Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar] types of applications, but also shooting down anti-ship missiles and potentially ballistic missiles. What's the big void that exists that we still have to cross?

Rob: From a technology perspective, there are a number of domains that need to be continued to be advanced. So, everybody likes to talk about scaling laser power, and for good reason. In other words, more power means you can reach out at longer ranges, or you can defeat the threat in a shorter period of time. But as you scale power, you need to be able to keep the beam quality, right? In other words, if you just scale the power, but your ability to focus the [laser] spot diminishes, then you're not really going to be able to use that power for shorter defeat times or longer ranges.

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So, let's just start with the power scaling piece. Then, if you're just making stuff bigger and bigger, you also need more electrical power and you need more thermal management systems. So, continuing to push the electrical efficiency of these systems higher and higher will become important to minimize the demands on the power employing systems. But now, let's say you've achieved this power. If you want to reach a longer range, it means that your beam is going to propagate through the atmosphere for a longer distance, and you have to be able to maintain the aim point, right? So you're tracking and your line-of-sight stabilization has to keep improving.

And then, the atmosphere will begin to distort the laser beam, depending on the type of atmosphere you're in, if you're in a highly turbulent atmosphere or... It's actually turbulence that's the biggest problem, because what it does is... so think about when you're looking down a hot road and you see the heat waves coming off the road that distort the mountain or the car that's coming down the road... So, those kinds of heatwaves are variations in the atmosphere that are bending the light that's coming to your eyes. 

Say, it's one o'clock in the afternoon, you're driving through Arizona, you're on a two-lane highway, and off in the distance, there's this car coming at you, but it looks like there's water... the car's image is distorted, etcetera, all the light that's coming to you, to your eye is being distorted by all these heat waves that are coming off the road. And those are things we call variations of the index of refraction of the atmosphere. Well, similarly, if you try to propagate a laser beam through that, it would also be distorted and wouldn't be able to image very well to the target. So, to a lesser degree, if you're trying to go farther and farther in range, variations in the atmosphere begin to break up or distort the laser beam, and make it harder and harder to focus.

So, being able to do that atmospheric compensation piece, which is known as adaptive optics, so there's technology that's been developed, but is still maturing where you need to be able to measure the distortion in the atmosphere and then compensate for it, so that the beam propagates through the atmosphere and focuses tightly on to a target. 

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Each of these scaling points, so scaling and laser power, scaling and range, all of your precision needs to keep improving to make the systems more and more effective for the types of threats that you're talking about. So, not an easy answer like, "Oh, there's just one thing that needs to be fixed, and as soon as we fix that, we'll be fine," but the good news is there's a capability that we can deliver today, and then as we improve and as the technology improves and the computing power improves and the ability to make these high-quality optics improve and/or laser scaling improves, then the systems are going to keep improving.

Tyler: On the aerial side, a lot of the interest we get about laser technology comes from the tactical air side of things, and being able to put one of these on a fighter aircraft and being able to use it to defend against incoming missiles, like the SHiELD program. Can you speak about that and sort of what the vision is, where we're at, and where we can go with that in the future, including is that something that could be eventually applied to a low observable aircraft, not just something you slap a laser pod on to? I know Lockheed is cutting edge in this area, so I'd love for you to address it.

Rob: Let me cover number one and then I'll be a little bit more careful about number two, how does that sound? So, you're familiar with the SHiELD program, as you probably also know, Lockheed Martin has the LANCE contract, so we're developing the laser to go into the pod. What I think is important to understand about the technology that could be demonstrated on the SHiELD program is that the fact that we're even talking about putting a weapons class laser in a pod that could be on a fighter jet, shows you how far the technology has really come. It may not seem like that to people that aren't laser folks that have been trying to do this for a long time... where we thought, "never in a million years could we pull this off." And now, all of a sudden, here we are, and that we can make things smaller. 


For the tactical airborne, the hardest piece of the technology is the 'SWAP'—the size, weight, and power. The issue with tactical fighters is, there is no room for anything on a tactical fighter. All platforms are filled to the brim, right? As soon as you have a platform, you start putting stuff on it. So, even though a ship is much larger than a tactical fighter, there's less room on a ship than you would think, and that's mainly because the ships are already full of stuff too, right? But a tactical fighter is clearly, that's been the biggest challenge from being able to make something small enough and powerful enough to be useful. So, SHiELD is the beginning of this activity and as technology continues to miniaturize, and if you could trend where this technology is going, the laser systems are getting smaller and more powerful.

We haven't even gone yet to employ the full kind of hardening and packaging the way we do with our targeting pods. So for example, Lockheed Martin does the Sniper targeting pod, and we also do F-35 EOTS. Those are literally compact, hardened optical systems that can do targeting, tracking, and pointing of laser beams. So, beginning to apply those techniques and making the lasers... continue to make the lasers smaller will enable their use on tactical fighters. 

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Now, as far as... I don't know, if you call them 5th gen [fighters], but as far as 5th gen is concerned, as you can well imagine... you're probably not going to hang a pod off of that plane, and so, the ability for the system to be packaged up inside is gonna become key. And once again, there isn't a lot of room... So, continuing to reduce the volume [taken-up by a laser weapon]. Most importantly, these planes can actually lift a lot of weight. They have more ability to lift weight than there is actual room to put things inside... But as a prime platform maker, we understand what the options are and where things could potentially go.


Some have noted the forward fuel tank [or lift fan on the B model] in an F-35. I'm sure you know about that... For something like this to go into a big open space and you lose some gas in the process, but that's a lot of potentially available volume.

Rob: You said the forward fuel tank? Yeah. Is that what you were saying?

Tyler: Yeah. Where the lift fan sits in an F-35B.

Rob: Yeah. Where the lift fan... Yeah.

Tyler: There's that similar area on the A and C model, too.

Rob: So, there is volume there, if you take out the fan or if you take out fuel, and then, these all become trades. Right?

Tyler: Right.

Rob: Do you want to reduce the range, but carry this capability?

Tyler: Yeah, that's always the hardest question. Right?

Rob: Yeah.


Tyler: So, like HELIOS [High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance], on the naval side, it's an aggressive program. The Navy wants lasers now. They really want the technology. What will this system be able to do that, say the LaWS system that went on the amphibious sea base about six or seven years ago, what will the new system be able to do that LaWS couldn't? What type of leap are we going to be seeing in this new generation of directed energy weapons for naval ships?

Rob: Yeah, so I'm gonna qualitatively answer that question. The HELIOS system will have much more laser power. It will have much higher beam quality. It will have a bigger beam director, so that you could propagate it farther. And it will also have the dazzler function.

Tyler: So, we are talking about a pretty big leap in every way. 

Rob: It's a big leap in every way, and it will be tied into the combat system, which LaWS wasn't. LaWS was a very important step.

Tyler: Yeah.

Rob: You have to walk before you run. You can't skip the steps. So LaWS was a very important step. HELIOS is another bigger step. Significant.

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Tyler: For the ships that in the future, as these systems, as the users understand them more and refine how to employ them, because it's a beam, it can only hit one thing at one time, just like a missile. But a laser also has such a deeper magazine depth. Do you see the Navy putting multiple lasers on a ship, like what they do with, say, a Phalanx system or even like a Rolling Airframe Missile system? Do you see them integrating these on different turrets to offer much greater coverage at any given time and the ability for simultaneous engagement of targets?

Rob: Yeah, so specifically, how these systems would go and how many they would put on and so forth, is ultimately a Navy question. But I would just say, generically, the smaller, more powerful you can make the systems, the more opportunity there would be to decide how many of these systems you'd want to have.

Author's note: A big thank you to Dr. Rob Afzal for taking the time to share his incredible knowledge about all these fascinating developments with us. Also, thanks to Malissa Chadwick, who made this interview possible.  

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