The dawn of the combat laser era might begin in 2021 when the US air force hopes to begin demonstrations of a podded electric laser system for fifth and sixth-generation fighter jets that can destroy incoming missiles, not just steer them off course.

Today, the air force research laboratory started gathering market information under an advanced technology demonstration programme known as SHiELD, or self-protect high-energy laser demonstrator.

According to the request for information notice, the project seeks to integrate a “moderate power” electric laser into a protective pod for supersonic combat jets, including fifth-generation jets like the Lockheed Martin F-35 and F-22 as well as future fighters and bombers.

Northrop NGAD

Northrop Grumman

“SHiELD seeks to expand moderate power (tens of kilowatts) laser weapon operation into the supersonic regime by demonstrating system performance under transonic flight, and acquiring aero-effects data under a supersonic environment relevant to current and future tactical aircraft,” the notice states.

“Advanced laser options under investigation are those with size and weight appropriate for integration as part of a complete laser weapon system into an aerodynamic integrated pod-like structure carried by a tactical aircraft.”

The laser pod would be significantly more powerful than current-generation self-protection capabilities like Northrop Grumman’s directional infrared countermeasure (DIRCM) system. It’s added power could burn or otherwise disable infrared and radar-guided missiles at high speeds.

Military scientists hope to validate the laser pod in a laboratory environment (technology readiness level four) by 2017 and be ready for prototype demonstration by 2021, the notice says.

HEL Avenger

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

The air force has long sought to introduce airborne laser weapons, but the technology remains elusive. Lockheed Martin has explored laser weapon options for the F-35, and US special operations forces want to install a laser gun on the new AC-130J Ghostrider gunship by 2020.

Instead of chemical lasers that were favoured for the defunct Boeing YAL-1A airborne laser testbed, air force and industry officials now see electric-powered lasers as the best way forward.