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The US Air Force is working to one day be able to fire high-tech laser weapons from drones and fighter jets to destroy high-value targets, conduct precision strikes and incinerate enemy locations from the sky. The first airborne tests are expected to take place by 2021, Air Force officials have said, with developmental efforts focused on increasing the power, precision and guidance of existing laser weapon applications.

Developers are also working on the guidance mechanisms to enable laser weapons to stay on-track on a particular target.

According to defensemaven.io, the Air Force Research Laboratory is working on a program to develop laser weapons for drones and manned aircraft to arm air platforms by the mid-2020s. When it comes to drone-fired lasers, there does not yet appear to be a timetable for when they would be operational weapons – however weapons technology of this kind is moving quickly.  A 2016 Air Force Research Laboratory report, called “Speed of Light to the Fight by 2020,” details how laser weapons can be used to deliver “scalable” effects. These include ways a laser can create “denial, degradation, disruption and destruction from UAS (drones) to small boats at a range of several kilometers,” the report states. A Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year on Directed Energy Programs, also details some of the key advantages and limitations of fast-evolving laser weapons.

“DE (directed energy) could be used as a sensor and a weapon, thereby shortening the sensor-to-shooter timeline to seconds. This means that U.S. weapon systems could conduct multiple engagements against a target before an adversary could respond,” the Congressional report states. At the same time, the Congressional report also points out some basic constraints or challenges associated with laser weapons. Laser weapons can suffer from “limited range and an ability to be employed against non-line-of-sight targets,” the report says.

The AFRL report reinforces this, explaining that laser weapons need to enable precise timing, tracking and pointing amidst the aero-mechanical jitter induced by vibrations during flight.

The service is now pursuing two concurrent laser-weapons programs; the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD), designed to prepare airborne lasers and the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS), geared toward ground-fired weapons.

Given the complexity of laser weapons integration, the AFRL report details a three-pronged approach to development; the phased approach begins with subsystems engineering, then moves toward low-power laser testing and them conduct extensive air and ground tests.

Another advantage of lasers is an ability to use a much more extended magazine for weapons. Instead of flying with six or seven missiles on or in an aircraft, a directed energy weapons system could fire thousands of shots using a single gallon of jet fuel, Air Force experts explained.