The U.S. Air Force wants to equip its war planes with the High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS) by 2020, upping its defense game.

The Army and the Navy have already moved to upgrade their systems and boost their arsenal — now it's the Air Force's turn to make significant changes. The Air Force plans to employ combat lasers of its own to make its war planes more effective.

According to The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), enemy threats to aircraft, both manned and unmanned, have grown increasingly sophisticated and necessitate a powerful response. HELLADS could be the answer, with lasers to counter multiple threats with the power and the speed of light. In addition to defense purposes, combat lasers could also be of great help in offensive missions, as they would allow for precise targeting while minimizing the extent of collateral damage.

HELLADS, also referred to as directed-energy weapon pods, will allow American war planes to blast missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other combat aircraft out of the sky.

To efficiently work with current aircraft, however, these combat lasers will need to be lighter and smaller.

"The goal of the HELLADS program is to develop a 150 kilowatt (kW) laser weapon system that is ten times smaller and lighter than current lasers of similar power, enabling integration onto tactical aircraft to defend against and defeat ground threats," explains DARPA's David Shaver.

General Atomics Aeronautical has a 150 kW HELLADS system currently undergoing ground tests, and it appears to be the likely candidate for the U.S. Air Force contract. As Shaver noted, the weight goal of the HELLADS program is <5 kg/ kW for integrating High Energy Lasers (HELs) onto tactical aircraft for a notably larger engagement range compared to ground-based systems.

"The HELLADS program has completed the design and demonstration of a revolutionary subscale high-energy laser that supports the goal of a lightweight and compact high-energy laser weapon system," General Atomics explains. "An objective unit cell laser module with integrated power and thermal management is being designed and fabricated and will demonstrate an output power of >34 kW."

DARPA wants to integrate HELLADS with UAVs, and this third-generation prototype from General Atomics is compact enough for the job. General Atomics plans to integrate this laser system with the Predator C Avenger UAV for deployment by 2018.

For now, the HELLADS project still has a long way to go. The system will have to undergo a slew of field tests against rockets, mortars, UAVs, simulated surface-to-air missiles, ground vehicles, aircraft and more. After the field tests, the military services will further refine and test the system before it clears operational use.

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