[…] A report today from Breaking Defense confirmed that Lockheed Martin delivered its LANCE high-energy laser weapon to the Air Force in February this year. In this context, LANCE stands for “Laser Advancements for Next-generation Compact Environments.” The recipient for the new weapon is the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, which is charged with developing and integrating new technologies in the air, space, and cyberspace realms.
Tyler Griffin, a Lockheed executive, had previously told reporters that LANCE “is the smallest, lightest, high-energy laser of its power class that Lockheed Martin has built to date.”
Indeed, Griffin added that LANCE is “one-sixth the size” of a previous directed-energy weapon that Lockheed produced for the Army. That earlier laser was part of the Robust Electric Laser Initiative program and had an output in the 60-kilowatt class. We don’t yet know what kind of power LANCE can produce although there have been suggestions it will likely be below 100 kilowatts.
As well as being notably small and light, LANCE has reduced power requirements compared to other previous weapons, a key consideration for a fighter-based laser, especially one that can be mounted within the confines of a pod.
If successful in its defensive mission, it’s feasible that LANCE could go on to inform the development of more offensive-oriented laser weapons, including ones that could engage enemy aircraft and drones at longer ranges than would be the case when targeting a fast-approaching anti-aircraft missile, whether launched from the ground or from an enemy aircraft.
LANCE has been developed under a November 2017 contract that’s part of the Air Force’s wider Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD, program, something that we have written about in the past.
SHiELD is a collaborative effort that brings together Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. While Lockheed Martin provides the actual laser weapon, in the form of LANCE, Boeing produces the pod that carries it, and Northrop Grumman is responsible for the beam control system that puts the laser onto its target — and then keeps it there.
Kent Wood, acting director of AFRL’s directed energy directorate, told Breaking Defense that the various SHiELD subsystems “represent the most compact and capable laser weapon technologies delivered to date.”
Wood’s statement also indicated that actual test work by AFRL is still at an early stage, referring to “mission utility analyses and wargaming studies” that are being undertaken currently. “Specific targets for future tests and demonstrations will be determined by the results of these studies as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lockheed’s Tyler Griffin added that the next stage in the program would see LANCE integrated with a thermal system to manage heating and cooling.
At his stage, we don’t know exactly what aircraft LANCE is intended to equip, once it progresses to flight tests and, hopefully, airborne firing trials. However, Griffin said that “a variety of potential applications and platforms are being considered for potential demonstrations and tests.”
Previous Lockheed Martin concept art has shown the pod carried by an F-16 fighter jet. And, while SHiELD is initially concerned with proving the potential for active defense of fighter jets in high-risk environments, officials have also talked of the possibility of adapting the same technology for larger, slower-moving combat and combat support aircraft, too.
Boeing flew a pre-prototype pod shape — without its internal subsystems — aboard an Air Force F-15 fighter in 2019. During ground tests, meanwhile, a representative laser, known as the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS), has already successfully shot down multiple air-launched missiles over White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, also in 2019.
A decision on the initial test platform for the complete SHiELD system will likely follow once a flight demonstration has been funded, which is currently not the case. Similarly, there is not yet a formal transition plan for how LANCE and SHiELD could evolve into an actual program of record.