The US Air Force has awarded a $26 million contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a high-powered laser source as part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s podded electric laser concept for fifth- and sixth-generation fighter jets.

The Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments (LANCE) contract marks the second award for AFRL’s laser-equipped fighter jet effort, the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD). Last summer, Northrop Grumman won a $39 million contract to develop SHiELD’s laser beam control under the SHiELD Turret Research in Aero-Effects (STRAFE) programme. The USAF is expected to award another contract for the Laser Pod Research and Development, which will develop the pod, thermal management system, battery and cooling system.

LANCE will develop a compact, ruggedised high power laser for a tactical jet, with an event scheduled for 2021 to demonstrate a low power laser on a fighter. Following a successful demonstration with the low power laser against flying targets, AFRL would repeat the tests with a high power laser, FlightGlobal previously reported.

Although previous documents have indicated the laser will be used for self-defense, AFRL officials have characterized the SHiELD effort as both offensive and defensive. AFRL has also begun exploring a defensive laser capability for the service’s tanker fleet, Jack Blackhurst, executive director at AFRL, tells FlightGlobal. The tanker effort sprang out of a directed energy summit held this summer, Blackhurst says. The concept is separate from SHiELD and Air Force Materiel Command is now studying options.

“For years we’ve been talking about putting it on a fighter,” he says. “The tanker thing is relatively new and we’re looking at it from a technology perspective. Could we do it faster? Would the actual pod look differently? So, that’s all part of the different technologies that we need to go look at.”