Two years after the final cancellation and mothballing of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency's groundbreaking "Airborne Laser" weapons system, Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is getting ready for another go-'round. And this time, Lockheed's laser guns could be better than ever.
When last we left this laser saga, the Pentagon's Airborne Laser, or ABL, depended upon a Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser comprising six linked modules, "each the size of an SUV" for its power. The ABL was so big, in fact, that it took a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet to haul the thing around. (Indeed, Boeing (NYSE:BA) was also a partner on the ABL project, as were defense giants Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) and Raytheon (NYSE:RTN)).
But this time, Lockheed's laser gun could be much closer to pocket-sized -- and it could just about build the thing all by itself.
Lockheed Martin's secret weapon...
Working off of a contract from the secretive DARPA organization, Lockheed Martin was recently hired to develop an Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control ("ABC" for short) for targeting an airborne laser. Lockheed's task is to develop, by September 15, 2015, a turret that can "counteract the effects of turbulence caused by the protrusion of a turret from an aircraft's fuselage."
In other words, Lockheed's laser must be able to "see through" aerial turbulence, such as is produced by an airplane's movement through the air. But more than that, the ability to adapt how a laser beam focuses its beam to adjust for an airplane's self-created turbulence could also increase the laser's effectiveness. It might, for example, give the laser greater range, and better ability to penetrate airborne obstructions such as clouds, smoke, and other particulates.
And that's not all. A laser system such as Lockheed is working on could have defensive capabilities as well. Combined with other technologies, such as the "360 degree, spherical situational awareness system" designed into the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet, military tech website FoxtrotAlpha says ABC could "literally shoot down missiles as they approach" with laser beams. Computerized and automated, it could "create an active laser sphere-like shield around the aircraft" -- rendering the aircraft essentially immune from hostile fire.
...comes in a tiny package
There is one small detail about Lockheed's ABC, however, that seems a bit odd. Whereas we know that the old experimental "ABL" needed a 747 to lug it around, according to military tech website FoxtrotAlpha , Lockheed is testing its ABC turret aboard a relatively tiny Dassault Falcon 10 business jet. To give you an idea of the discrepancy in sizes, the Falcon 10 has a wingspan only one-sixteenth that of a 747 -- and room for only 10 passenger and crew aboard, versus the 660 souls who can be crammed aboard a Boeing 747.
Which gets a defense investor to wondering -- what is the point of testing the ABC turret on an aircraft far too small to carry the laser gun that the ABC is supposed to shoot with?
Surprisingly, it's entirely possible that within just a few years, the military could have laser guns small enough to fit aboard a Falcon 10 (or perhaps planes just a bit bigger).
You see, military laser technology has advanced significantly since the time, just a few short years ago, when it took six SUV-sized chemical tanks to power an effective airborne laser. Already, the Navy has a 33 kilowatt high energy Laser Weapon System in trials at sea. While it's probably too big to mount on a fighter jet, it's already a whole lot smaller than six SUVs. What's more...
- Boeing has a 10 kilowatt laser small enough that it can be carried around on a small truck.
- Raytheon is building a 25 kw high energy laser, small enough to mount on a Humvee...
- Lockheed itself is working on a 60 kw high energy laser for the Army, with delivery of the prototype expected Dec. 27, 2016.
Most of these systems, therefore, are already small enough that it's feasible to begin wondering when someone will try to install them on a fighter jet.
But is "small" big enough?
How much power does a laser gun need to put out to be useful as an aerial weapons system? According to website BreakingDefense.com, once you get to 50-100 kilowatts, a laser gun is powerful enough to "take out cruise missiles, drones, and manned aircraft at ranges of a few miles." Effective destruction at longer ranges, however, will "require hundreds of kilowatts... and killing a ballistic missile in boost phase would take about a thousand kilowatts -- one megawatt or more."
But don't let that put you off. While defense contractors are still working on miniaturizing their laser guns, Lockheed Martin has already built a plane capable of providing the necessary power. Because as we were able to confirm from AviationWeek, the output of the power plant aboard Lockheed's F-35 fighter jet can put out 20 megawatts. That's more than enough juice to shoot down anything that comes within the F-35's field of vision.
That is to say, it will be -- just as soon as Lockheed Martin gets its ABC turret to see straight.
What it means for investors
In investing circles, we toss around the term "game changer" a lot when talking about new technologies -- but Lockheed's ABC laser turret may really deserve the title. Offensive capabilities aside (and they're considerable), if ABC can create the kind of "active laser sphere-like shield around the aircraft" that FoxtrotAlpha envisions, it could render fighter jets powerful enough to carry it -- such as the F-35 -- immune from hostile attack. Only another laser could penetrate such a shield...
And so far nobody else has got another laser.
Maybe, just maybe, the F-35 has a future after all.
Rich Smith owns shares of Raytheon Company. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.