Lockheed Laser Brings Turrets Back To Airplanes

Might the Laserfortress replace the Stratofortress?

ABC Laser Turret In Test Flight

Air Force Research Laboratory

In World War II, mighty bombers came equipped with gun barrels, manned by gunners at the ready to protect the plane from attacking fighters. The B-52 Stratofortress even came with a tail gun for self defense and last used it in combat over Vietnam in 1972. The change in fighter weapons from guns to missiles made tail guns obsolete, but now Lockheed and DARPA are bringing them back. As freakin' lasers.

Named the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control, or ABC for short, the laser is a directed energy weapon in a 360-degree turret. Its claim to fame? It fries incoming missiles. Controls and cameras in the turret make sure the laser stays locked on to the missile while being fired from an airplane. On Monday, Lockheed announced that a converted commercial jet with the ABC laser attached completed eight test flights over Michigan.

When Popular Science spoke with Lockheed CTO Ray Johnson about the future of war, Johnson was keen to highlight lasers. He told Popular Science at the time:

[Lasers] can operate with the electrical power that could be generated on an aircraft. You could certainly see it go on bomber-sized aircraft and as the technology develops and size/weight/power are reduced, our notion is to see it get to the point where it can go on fighter-sized aircraft. Whether it's a special-purpose fighter, or how that would work, I don’t have the details. Maybe he’s a wingman to an F-35 or a flight of F-35s.

Defensive lasers on airplanes could make it much harder for anti-air weapons to shoot down aircraft. And presently, anti-aircraft missiles, especially ground-launched systems, are much cheaper than state-of-the-art warplanes. For the past 20 years, new American warplanes were built stealthy to protect themselves from radar-guided missiles, but there are limitations to size, shape, and cost that come with stealth design.

As an alternative, shooting down missiles in mid-air with an electric-powered weapon might be a lot cheaper. And as America looks to future warplane design, it means the venerable tail turret might just come back -- as an airborne anti-missile laser.

A B-17 Flying With A B-52

In the foreground in the B-17 Flying Fortress, iconic World War II bomber. In the background is a B-52 Superfortress, iconic Cold War bomber still in service.U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael A. Kaplan, via Wikimedia Commons