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The U.S. Air Force expects to equip F-15 fighter jets with laser weapons by 2020

For science fiction aficionados, a laser-firing starship or jet fighter is but another day at the office. Literally thousands of books and films feature this futuristic tech as a facet of its battlefields, but would you ever expect the likes of the United States Air Force to include it in its arsenal? Well just this week, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced it’s developing a working laser weapon that it plans on strapping to an F-15 by as soon as 2020. Less science fiction and more science fact, armed forces may soon see a monumental shift in the way they engage in warfare in just five short years.

While arming an F-15 fighter jet with a laser weapon is as revolutionary as anything coming out of the military lately, the capability of using such a technology isn’t entirely unheard of. As far back as 2002, the Air Force strapped a prototype attack laser to a 747-400 freighter aircraft (dubbed the YAL-1) after decades of development and ground testing. By 2007, the YAL-1 successfully fired a low-powered laser at an airborne object, then intercepted a test target in 2010 utilizing a high-powered laser.

The thing is, it’s much easier to equip a large aircraft with a laser weapon than to strap one onto a wee little fighter jet. According to AFRL chief engineer Kelly Hammett, the primary hurdle lies with developing a laser small, accurate, and powerful enough for a jet while avoiding the g-force and vibration interference caused by supersonic speeds. Furthermore, Hammett believes this obstacle is but a temporary hindrance, going so far as to say the problem will be solved within five years.

“It really is a national tipping point,” Hammett tells CNN. “We see the technology evolving and maturing to the stage where it really can be used.”

An F-15 Eagle fighter jet

An F-15 Eagle fighter jet

Currently, the Air Force says it’s prepping testing of its laser weapon for an F-15 Eagle fighter with Air Force general Herbert Carlisle “cautiously optimistic” for a prototype test by 2016 or 2017. As of this last May, the test prep featured trials of laser-weapon pods the Air Force intends to mount to existing fighter jets sometime in the future. Moreover, Carlisle sees laser weapons as the inevitable next step in revolutionizing U.S. armed forces.

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“I think [laser-equipped aircraft] will enhance our ability to provide theater air power,” Carlisle said. “Our [relative] position in the joint fight in air and space won’t change, but our capabilities will significantly increase and we’ll do it better than anyone in the world.”

So how might an F-15 laser system actually work? According to Hammett, the Air Force intends to use a kind of laser tech known as a solid state laser; a variation which relies on sending energy into a solid crystalline material to manufacture beams of lasers. Outside of the production process, these lasers function like any other — that is, a solid state laser is comprised of extremely high temperature, concentrated beams of light capable of incinerating an intended target.

Though it’s an incredible advantage to have fighter jets armed with laser weapons, those associated with the tech (i.e. military researchers and the like) often point towards using it as a defense tactic. Speaking at the 2015 Air and Space Conference earlier this year, Air Force Lieutenant General Bradley Heithold explicitly stated he’d like to have a laser equipped to an AC-130 gunship solely for its defensive capability.

An AC-130 gunship

An AC-130 gunship

Furthermore, the AFRL says it’s also developing a purely defensive laser tech it’s describing as a “defensive laser shield.” Essentially, the tech would create a 360-degree laser bubble around a warplane or jet fighter capable of destroying or incapacitating anything that enters it. Hammett points out that versions comprised of a turret, which avoid altering the aerodynamics of an aircraft, have already been tested.

“We do know that there are other nations developing similar technologies,” Hammett adds. “We see research out of near peer countries developing technologies in these areas.”

Despite its inherent benefit to U.S. Armed Forces, there exist a range of issues surrounding the legality of using lasers in warfare. On one hand, a treaty issued by the United Nations in 1995 prohibits the use of laser weapons designed entirely to serve a combat function of causing “permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.” Then, in a 2007 DSB Task Force Report, the United States Congress deemed laser weapons “legal” under U.S. and international law. It remains to be seen how exactly the U.N. treaty (called the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons) will be interpreted once laser weapons see the battlefield.

Legal or not, research and development of the technology shows no sign of slowing down for the Air Force Research Laboratory. With funding of the laser directorate reportedly secured until 2020 (as Hammett tells CNN), it appears likely the Air Force will commence advanced testing sometime in 2016.