Nothing says futuristic 'top gun' like a fighter jet using a high-energy laser to blast enemy missiles out of the sky. That future may be only a few years away. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has issued a $26.3-million contract to Lockheed Martin to design, develop, and build a high-energy laser for tests in a tactical fighter jet by 2021. The key technology is an advanced version of a multi-kilowatt fiber laser like the one the Navy tested earlier on the USS Ponce.
Fiber lasers started as a dark horse in the development of electrically-powered laser weapons that culminated in a demonstration of a 100-kilowatt laboratory laser by Northrop-Grumman in 2009. Multi-kilowatt fiber lasers were already in use in industrial machining, but conventional wisdom said that fiber laser output was limited because optical power was concentrated inside the fiber's tiny light-guiding core. Though that setup maximized how efficiently a fiber laser could convert electrical energy into light and gave good beam quality, it also raised the power density so high that a single fiber couldn't emit much more than about 10 kilowatts without self-destructing.