Last year, Lockheed Martin began testing a new tactical laser turret for future warplanes. After 60 test flights Lockheed says the 360° capability of the turret system has been verified, moving the technology a step closer to deployment on tactical aircraft flying at near-supersonic speeds.

The tendency is to think of lasers as dead straight rods of light that cut through the air, but air is one of the laser’s biggest problems. Turbulence, for example, distorts and scatters laser beams like an invisible fun house mirror. This means that at near-supersonic speeds, the turbulence effect is so bad that a laser weapon would only be able to aim straight ahead.

To prevent aerial laser weapons from becoming a 21st century version of old fighter plane machine guns, Lockheed came up with the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) turret. Developed for DARPA and the Air Force Research Laboratory, it uses an optical compensation system consisting of a set of deformable mirrors and aerodynamic and flow-control technology to alter the laser and compensate for turbulence. This gives the laser a 360° aiming field capability, so it can engage targets coming from any direction.

According to Lockheed, the 60 tests carried out since 2014 using a low-powered laser installed in a two-engine business jet as a cruise-speed test platform have confirmed the turret's ability to work in all directions. The findings from these tests will be used by DARPA and AFRL to write future requirements for laser weapon systems operating at near-supersonic and supersonic speeds.

"This advanced turret design will enable tactical aircraft to have the same laser weapon system advantages as ground vehicles and ships," says Doug Graham, vice president of missile systems and advanced programs, Strategic and Missile Defense Systems, Lockheed Martin Space Systems. "This is an example of how Lockheed Martin is using a variety of innovative technologies to transform laser devices into integrated weapon systems."