Turret flight tests to pave the way for laser weapons on military aircraft

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The laser turret prototype being tested on the University of Notre Dame’s Airborne Aero Optical Laboratory Transonic Aircraft in Michigan (Photo: Air Force Research Laboratory)

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High energy laser (HEL) systems have been the subject of military research for decades, but it is only in recent years that the technology has advanced to the point where it is feasible for such systems to be mounted on military ground vehicles and sea vessels. Initial flight tests have now been conducted on a new aircraft laser turret that will help pave the way for HEL systems to be integrated into military aircraft.

Lockheed Martin, working in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the University of Notre Dame, recently conducted eight flight tests in Michigan with a prototype Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret fitted to the University of Notre Dame's Airborne Aero Optical Laboratory Transonic Aircraft.

The tests were intended to demonstrate the airworthiness of the new beam control turret being developed for DARPA and AFRL that is designed to provide 360-degree coverage for HEL weapons on an aircraft, thereby allowing it to engage enemy aircraft and missiles above, below and behind the aircraft.

The turret features flow control and optical compensation technologies developed by Lockheed that are designed to counteract the effects of turbulence resulting from the turret protruding from the aircraft's fuselage.

"These initial flight tests validate the performance of our ABC turret design, which is an enabler for integrating high energy lasers on military aircraft," said Doug Graham, vice president of advanced programs, Strategic and Missile Defense Systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems.

Lockheed says subsequent flight tests will be conducted over the course of the next year, which will see the complexity of operations steadily ramping up.

At the 2014 Air Force Association's Air & Space and Technology Expo this week in Washington D.C., Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello who is the Commander of the AFRL, revealed that he has on occasion been leery of the HEL program's progress, saying, "[The high-energy laser program] has been over-promised, but under-delivered."

But it appears that perseverance is finally beginning to pay off with Masiello going on to say that the solid-state laser has emerged as a breakthrough program in recent years. "Now you can actually package it and fit it on an aircraft. I can’t over emphasize the progress we have made in solid-state lasers. Initially, we are looking at more self-defense. Eventually [we will] deploy against soft targets ... getting to hard target kills."

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