🔷 Airborne Lasers 2.0

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Credit: Boeing/Mike Casad/ABL

Airborne Lasers 2.0

The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has renewed its focus on developing airborne laser systems.


Airborne lasers have been a significant focus of military research and development for several decades. One of the most notable projects was the US Air Force's YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed, which utilized a modified Boeing 747-400F equipped with a megawatt-class chemical laser and steerable turret nose.

Initiated in the 1990s, the project aimed to demonstrate the feasibility of using high-energy lasers to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles during their boost phase. It faced numerous operational and technical challenges and was canceled in 2011—after 16 years and $5 billion spent.

Fun Fact: To test it, they used an NKC-135 painted with a black nose and a white ballistic missile silhouette.

Take 2

The MDA wants to try it again, but it’s starting small.

Instead of high-power chemical lasers, they are interested in solid-state laser tech, which offers higher efficiency, greater power, and improved operational flexibility. These lasers are more compact and efficient, making them suitable for integration into various airborne platforms (manned or unmanned).

However, instead of shooting down missiles with lasers, it wants to show the tech has matured enough to track targets with lasers.

Advanced optics and space stabilization techniques have come a long way, and this is what the MDA wants to focus on. These technologies ensure the laser maintains focus over long distances, a critical requirement for its aiming accuracy—and therefore its effectiveness—against fast-moving targets.

Now What

The MDA is starting small, with just $11m to explore the tracking aspect of airborne lasers. That sounds small (ok, tiny), but there’s a ton of adjacent stuff that’s been going on in this space.

The Army has been funding the development of ground-based lasers to shoot down drones for over a decade. Several prototypes have been developed and deployed, including 20-kilowatt and 50-kilowatt mobile laser weapon systems. The Navy has tested larger 150-kilowatt lasers to shoot down drones, too. Other industry efforts include a mobile 300-kilowatt system delivered to the Army and a system Lockheed Martin is currently scaling to 500 kilowatts.

Notably, while these ground-based systems are getting smaller and better, the most powerful one is still just half the power of MDA’s defunct 747-based megawatt-class laser.

Power levels will undoubtedly continue to rise as the tech matures, but until then, the MDA is uniquely focused on the airborne aspect, which introduces a number of operational and technical challenges these surface systems don’t have to contend with.

Research has been going on with turreted airborne lasers for a decade but those all died. There was also an effort to install a laser pod on a fighter jet test bed, but the project was scrapped before it happened. So, there is definitely a void here to fill, and it looks like the MDA notices it too.

Crystal Ball

Seeing all of the pieces in play, don’t be surprised to see a C-130 testbed with a side-shooting air-to-air laser in the next few years.

If it comes to pass, it’ll pay homage not only to the 747-based YAL-1, but also to the Air Force's recently abandoned attempt at operationalizing an air-to-ground laser weapon on an AC-130J gunship.

In That Number


The F-22 Raptor surpassed 500,000 flight hours.


On this day in 1943, Lockheed Skunk Works officially began. What was their first project?

A) spy plane
B) fighter jet
C) bomber
D) drone

On the Radar

DIU is looking for kinetic defeat solutions for medium-sized drones to protect Navy ships. These can be prototypes but must be ready for testing within 3 months of the award. Additionally, DIU has stated the solution should have a 90% probability of success out to ~10 miles.

  • The Merge’s Take: We’ll see what comes out of the woodwork, but ground-based gun-style solutions can’t hit the range DIU is looking for, and neither can rocket-based systems like L3Harris’ VAMPIRE. Quadcopter-style interceptors like DroneHunter and Anvil are optimized for threats and ranges smaller and closer than what DIU wants. RTX’s Coyote inceptors seem logical; the Army is already buying hundreds of them—maybe it’s time to try them at sea. Anduril’s Roadrunner is also purpose-built for this type of thing, though its new and production scale is unknown. Why DIU has the range and urgency requirements: The US has spent $1B in legacy munitions defending against the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea to date, and the attacks show no signs of fading. The Navy needs a better, cheaper, purpose-built solution ASAP.


Northrop Grumman announced its planning to build munitions inside Ukraine. The co-production agreement for medium-caliber ammo is the first publicly acknowledged deal between a US defense prime and the Ukrainian government for a manufacturing project inside the war-torn country.

  • The Merge’s Take: While this is big news, there is a story inside this story. A Northrop rep revealed that they are able to deliver better equipment faster by circumventing the Pentagon contracts that require technical data packages (TDPs) because they constrain solutions to what are often legacy, conforming requirements.


The Army is looking beyond its ground-launched AIM-9X systems for its Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2 (IFPC Inc 2) program.

  • The Merge’s Take: Astute readers might point the Army to the NASAMS ground-launched AIM-120 system…but they’ve already looked at it. What the service wants is an AIM-120-like capability but with smaller projectiles so each of the existing launchers can hold 18 interceptors—and it’s willing to fund the development to make it happen. If this is serious, that could open the door for something like RTX’s half-sized AIM-120-like missile concept, which means it might also open the door for a jointly-funded counter-air missile that helps both the Army and Air Force with magazine depth.

  • The Merge’s Spicy Take: If you’re unfamiliar with NASAMS, you need to get up to speed—they’re doing good work in Ukraine. Check out the NASAMS episode we did earlier this year!

They Said It
“If it’s going to last 25 or 30 years, then it’s gotta do everything but make you toast in the morning.”

— Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin, describing how the service intends to regularly replace collaborative combat aircraft (CCA) to avoid the traditional cost sustainment/modernization growth that plagues traditional long-term aircraft programs.

Knowledge Bombs

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B. Not just a fighter jet—the first one. The Army approached Lockheed about building America’s very first fighter jet—and ASAP. Kelly Johnson assembled a crack team that designed and built XP-80 Shooting Star prototype in just 143 days. During this project, the team adopted the name Skunk Works.