Futuristic Air Force fighters will be here sooner than you think

"Star Wars - Escape from Death Star" Photo Credit: Helgi Halldórsson from Reykjavík, Iceland

During a presentation on what he called “Fifth-Generation Warfare,” Air Force General Hawk Carlisle said: “I believe we’ll have a directed energy pod we can put on a fighter plane very soon.”

Gen. Carlisle was speaking about the advancements in cyber warfare during last week’s Air Force Association Air & Space conference. He said that combat aircraft may soon have the capability to take out threats in the sky using laser weapons.

A system of low-power laser weapons can already be mounted on unmanned aircraft, flown by the Air Force, such as the Predator and Reaper drones.

Within the next five years, however, the Air Force is looking for something like a laser cannon for fighter aircraft, more powerful systems that could be mounted on fighters and other manned Air Force planes.

The Air Force has a system under development by General Atomics in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, called HELLADS. That system is now moving into ground-based testing, according to arstechnica.com.

Air Force officials believe that HELLADS could have a “field-ready” weapons system by 2020.

An artist's rendering of HELLADS, a General Atomics-built laser weapon now in ground testing.  Photo Credit: DARPA
An artist’s rendering of HELLADS, a General Atomics-built laser weapon now in ground testing. Photo Credit: DARPA

The US Navy has also been seeking directed energy weapons and has already deployed a laser weapon aboard the USS Ponce, capable of a range of attacks against small boats, drones, and light aircraft either by “blinding their sensors or operators or heating elements to make them fail or explode.”

The Air Force has just signed off on full production of a weapon that “more completely fulfills the vision of a smart, jamming-resistant bomb that can, drop right into the enemy’s back pocket.” USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said.

With the SDB-II coming along, Carlisle said that “the discussion of how to replace the A-10 is ludicrous.” The SDB II uses technology originally intended for Raytheon’s Precision Attack Missile (PAM): a “tri-mode” guidance system that uses GPS assisted inertial navigation as well as infrared and onboard millimeter-wave radar with automatic target recognition features.

Carlisle also talked about the “dial-a bomb” capability, involving smaller precision bombs. These so-called smart bombs allow pilots to set properties of how and when the bomb will explode. They can select the settings from the cockpit, just before the bomb is dropped.

The Air Force has had some of this capability since the 1990s with bomb fuse systems developed for the “GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the laser-guided Paveway bombs.”

Boeing’s Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), the GBU-39, carries a 50-pound explosive charge.  Droppable by just about everything capable of carrying bombs in the USAF’s inventory, the GBU-39 and its laser-guided variant have been used in strikes in operations against ISIS, resulting in what Carlisle called “the lowest civilian casualty rates ever” for bombing operations.

While JDAM has moving-target capabilities, an upgraded system using GBU-53/B, will give Air Force pilots the ability to react quickly to the need for “close air support” for troops on the ground or other emerging missions. The GBU-53/B is a small, self-guided bomb that can distinguish and lock onto targets on its own and can change how it explodes based on the selected target.

Gen. Carlisle also talked about how offensive cyberwarfare capabilities are an important part of how the Air Force approaches combat in the future.

Air Force Major General Burke “Ed” Wilson, commander of the 24th Air Force and of Air Forces Cyber, talked about the ways the Air Force is looking to combine “non-kinetic options into the kinetic fight…bringing together the power of the air, space, cyber, ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and EW [Electronic Warfare] domains.”

Over the past few years, the Air Force has integrated cyberwarfare into its annual Red Flag war game, but this past year, Carlisle said, was the first time the Air Force included cyber as a major aspect of Red Flag. “It took us 11 years,” Carlisle noted during his ASC presentation.


  • Michele graduated with a B.S. in Telecommunication from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She has spent numerous years working in the news industry in south Florida, including many positions ranging from being a news writer at WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Miami to being an associate news producer at WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. Michele has also worked in Public Relations and Marketing.

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