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U.S. Air Force has shot down multiple air-launched missiles in a test

U.S. Air Force has shot down multiple air-launched missiles in a test

In addition, the Air Force has clear incentives to ensure SHiELD is a success. It's hard to stress just how revolutionary a podded laser defense system would be for virtually any military aircraft. Unlike expendable countermeasures such as hot-burning flares or radar-blinding chaff, or electronic warfare systems, a laser weapon actively zeroes in on an incoming missile rather than simply throwing out some form of distracting noise to try to confuse the threat. A directed energy weapon also has an effectively bottomless magazine.

That's not to say that SHiELD, at least as described presently, doesn't have limitations. A turreted laser can only ever engage one target at a time and there is the aforementioned risk of atmospheric disruptions reducing the beam's range and efficacy. Any future laser missile defense system is likely to just be part of a layered self-protection suite on future aircraft that could include a mix of other advanced options, including improved electronic warfare jammers, towed decoys, hard-kill interceptors, and more.

There's really no reason why SHiELD, or a derivative thereof, could not be used in an offensive role during within visual range air combat against other actual aircraft or as an air-to-ground weapon against soft targets. A defensive podded laser weapon could also serve as a starting place for a purpose-built offensive system, too.

In October 2018, AFRL announced it was looking for companies that might have proposals for a high-energy laser or high-powered microwave directed energy weapon for "precision airborne offensive strike" missions, as well as defensive roles, separate from the SHiELD effort. In addition, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) had been talking about adding an offensive laser capability on its AC-130J Ghostrider gunships by 2022, though it appears that this timeline has gotten pushed back.

If everything stays on schedule, the Air Force is still around two years out from demonstrating a full prototype of the podded SHiELD system on a fighter jet-sized aircraft. But this latest test at White Sands shows the program is on track to making this game-changing capability a reality.

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May 7, 2019 at 01:58AM