DARPA developing drone-mounted lasers to shoot down missiles

October 30, 2013

The research and development arm of the US Department of Defense plans to establish drone-mounted laser weapons, a scheme referred to as ‘Project Endurance’ in the agency’s 2014 budget request.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seeks to produce “technology for pod-mounted lasers to protect a variety of airborne platforms from emerging and legacy EO/IR [electro-optical and infrared] guided surface-to-air missiles.”

DARPA’s FY2014 budget request explains that Endurance will be the first application of the Excalibur laser defense system, which fosters optical-phased array technologies for lasers much lighter than high-power chemical lasers and capable of use as weapons.

“The focus of the Endurance effort...will be on miniaturizing component technologies, developing high-precision target tracking, identification, and lightweight agile beam control to support target engagement. The program will also focus on the phenomenology of laser-target interaction and associated threat vulnerabilities,” DARPA says.

“In other words,” as Motherboard wrote of the project, “DARPA hopes that drone-mounted lasers will soon be able to shoot missiles out of the sky.”

Endurance contracts have been given to military-contracting titans Northrop Grumman ($14.6 million) and Lockheed Martin ($11.4 million), according to Military & Aerospace Electronics.

The ultimate capabilities for Endurance’s laser-mounted drones will be to defend themselves against attacks and become a reliable anti-missile protection system, Motherboard reported.

On the other side of the fence, Lockheed Martin is developing a truck-mounted, 60-kilowatt fiber laser module with the ability to shoot down drones, rockets, artillery rounds, and mortars, Military & Aerospace Electronics reported in September.

The project - High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator - seeks to build on the US military’s 25-kilowatt laser capability “to develop a laser weapon to counter airborne threats with lasers of 50 to 100 kilowatts.”

Airborne lasers have been under development by the US armed forces for decades, and gained some notoriety during the Reagan administration’s Cold War-era “Star Wars” program, which was aimed at thwarting the Soviet Union’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) arsenal. 

Though that project was eventually scrapped as laser technology was costly and insufficiently developed to be fielded, it did produce some successful examples of the technology, including the Airborned Laser Laboratory (ALL) project in 1983, which mounted a 400kW laser aboard a Boeing NKC-137 cargo plane and successfully took down Sidewinder missiles.


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