June 25, 2003 (by Lieven Dewitte) - "Star Wars" laser battles may have happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but for the U.S. Air Force they're just now starting to become a reality. A new high energy laser weapon and F-16 flight simulator is being designed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Theater Aerospace Command Control Simulation Facility at Kirtland Air Force Base.
The F-16 model is a smaller version of the airborne laser weapon already under development for use on a Boeing 747 for shooting down missiles. It could be ready for use in 2012, but before that happens, pilots will test the system in the simulator to see how useful it is and suggest ways it could be improved to help them in combat.
The advantage of the laser is that it can hit a target at the speed of light, almost instantly compared with the time of flight of a missile, which can take several seconds. At a cost of only a couple hundred dollars, is also a much more cost-effective weapon compared to when you launch a missile that costs hundreds of thousands. Another advantage of the laser system is that it's a renewable weapon. It only needs to be recharged after firing, wheras a missiles are completely destroyed.
This fall the system will be attached to flight simulators in Arizona at the Fighter Weapons Training Branch. Pilots at the facility will tell the Air Force whether they think the laser is worth further development or not.
It needs to be seen how they like it and how often they use it over conventional weapons. Right now the system is just a proposal, and the laser is competing with other technologies, such as more advanced missiles.
The high energy laser weighs about 5,000 pounds and can fire on targets up to 10 miles away - a short distance compared with the 40-mile reach of air-to-air missiles. If the pilots like the simulation, scientists will try to make the weapon smaller and more powerful, so it can fire greater distances and take up less space on an F-16.
They also need to figure out how long it takes for the laser to take out a target. It's not like 'Battlestar Galactica', where you just fire, and they go down. It has to hit the target for a second or two."
The system can of course also fire at targets on the ground, such as enemy lines or tank columns.
To build the simulator an extra firing button is added on the pilot's stick and extensive software programs realistically simulate the targeting instrument panel and visual firing of the system on two video screens.
The one unrealistic thing about the laser is the sound it makes. When fired, the simulator makes a noise that sounds a lot like a 'Star Trek' phaser blast. In real life, the laser makes no noise at all but here it is needed to give the pilots some audible feedback so they know when the laser fired.
The system has been fully developed and tested at Kirtland, but it must be adapted for the much more advanced flight simulators in Arizona. Its developers will spend the next several months tweaking it to work on those systems and hope to finish late this year.