Military Aviation

USAF says laser weapon integration on KC-135 is “still in the infancy stage”

“The next phase: Does that make sense, does it make sense to put a pod on there, or do you want to go complete and do a system integration of a laser itself?,” Tom Lockhart, director of U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office

Tom Lockhart, the director of U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office has an update on plans to install high-powered lasers on various platforms and he mentioned that putting it on the KC-135 is “still in the infancy stage.”

Tom Lockhart said his people recently met officials from Air Mobility Command (AMC) to identify an area to mount a pod for the laser and the next step is to figure out if that make sense.

“The next phase [is]: Does that make sense, does it make sense to put a pod on there, or do you want to go complete and do a system integration of a laser itself?” Lockhart said. “You can do it a little bit different from just hanging a pod on there. You could integrate it with the rest of the systems.”

As told by Defense News, increasing the survivability of tankers has been a pet project of AMC head Gen. Carlton Everhart. Actually most tankers were designed without defensive systems, but Everhart has said future conflicts could require tankers to move closer to the fight, necessitating the adoption of situational awareness upgrades or even more intricate systems like laser weapons.

Potential applications include countering unmanned aircraft or cruise missiles.

“The expectation is to have this capability available to our war fighters within two years,” Everhart told Air Force Times in November. “It’s time to move out and show we’re serious about this to our airmen.”

Lockhart described the KC-135 integration as a parallel effort with the Air Force’s best-known laser program, the Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) which aims to test a laser pod on an F-15 fighter by 2021.

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Lockheed Martin is developing SHiELD under a $26.3 million contract. SHiELD is a directed energy weapons development program whose goal is to demonstrate the ability of a laser system mounted on aircraft. The program will develop and integrate a moderate power laser in a fighter-compatible pod.

Tests of a 50-kilowatt SHiELD laser will start this summer, followed by the first flight tests next year, said Jeff Stanley, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering.

The development of a podded system for the SHiELD program will offer valuable insight about how to stabilize laser weapons and drive down their size, weight and power use.

“With SHiELD, you’re learning a lot about targeting and tracking beyond just the pod itself,” Lockhart said. “What do you need to actually keep the laser on the target? And so that’s some of the stuff we have to learn as part of SHIELD, whether it goes on a KC-135 or on an F-15, you still have to understand those kind of control mechanisms.”

According Defense News, beyond SHiELD and the KC-135 demonstration, the service is continuing to develop a roll-on laser capability for Air Force Special Operations Command’s AC-130J gunship. A test plan is still in the works, but will likely be concurrent with the SHiELD program, Lockhart said.

Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel / U.S. Air Force

Artwork courtesy of

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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