Some 12 years ago, the Pentagon decided to drop its dream of an airborne laser (ABL) program that would have armed a Boeing 747 plane with a laser canon system roughly the size of two tractor trailers.

With advancements in laser technology and miniaturization, the vision has been revived and the United States government has recently awarded the Boeing Company an estimated US$90 million indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) contract for the development and delivery of an experimental laser pod for Air Force jets.

According to several media reports, the laser pod will likely be the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator or SHiELD, for short.

SHiELD is a high energy weapon development program launched to demonstrate the feasibility of mounting a laser system on an aircraft. The program involves the creation of a moderate power laser weapon in a fighter-compatible pod. The United States Air Force is considering to get their hands on defensive laser weapons by 2021.

Related Content

L-3 MAS partners with Boeing on Super Hornet program

Liberals announce ‘interim purchase’ of 18 Boeing Super Hornets

The Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed (formerly Airborne Laser) weapons system was a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) mounted inside a modified Boeing 747-400F. It is primarily designed as a missile defense system to destroy tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) while in boost phase.

Airborne laser on Boeing 747
Airborne laser on Boeing 747

The YAL-1 with a low-power laser was test-fired in flight at an airborne target in 2007. A high-energy laser was used to intercept a test target in January 2010, and the following month, successfully destroyed two test missiles. Funding for the program was cut in 2010 and the program was canceled in December 2011

The USAF said it has become possible to load a 5,000-lb. 200 kW, laser system onto a much smaller gunship such as the AC-130. In 2009, Boeing successfully fired at a ground target with its Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL) system carried by an airborne modified C-130H aircraft.

C-130 H with laser weapon
C-130 H with laser weapon

The ultimate plan is to shrink the laser pod further so that it can be carried by fighter jets.

Last August, Northrop Grumman was awarded a $39.3 million contract by the Air Force Research laboratory to develop and deliver an advanced beam control system to be integrated to the laser weapon tactical pod the USAF want for its fourth gen fighter planes such as the Boeing F-15 Eagle and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The company is expected to deliver the system by the end of August 2021.