Russian Military Plans Missile Killing Laser for Next-Generation Warplanes. Does It Work?

T-50 PAK-FA
A sky-borne Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA jet fighter (background) performs during a demonstration flight at the MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, near Moscow, August 31, 2013. Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Russian weapons designers want to arm the country’s future fighter jets with onboard laser defenses that wipe out incoming fire by exploding missile tips with heat alone—although the capabilities may not see the light of day until the late 2030s.

Earlier this month, the U.S. announced that its new laser weapon had successfully taken down a drone. KRET, Russia’s state-run radio-electronic arms developer, announced it too is preparing laser capabilities, state news agency Itar-Tass reports.

However, the new defenses will not be ready to be mounted on Russia’s incoming generation of warplanes—the so-called fifth generation—but are scheduled for launch on the generation after that. The poster-jet of the Russian military’s fifth generation, the Sukhoi PAK FA T-50, is still in the prototype phase, prompting experts to speculate that Russia’s sixth generation may not see the light of day for about another 20 years.

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“We already have laser systems for airplane and helicopter defense, and now we are discussing work in the field of laser strikes, which will physically destroy the honing heads of an attacking rocket,” Vladimir Mikheev, KRET director, told Tass on Thursday. “To put it roughly, we are going to burn out the ‘eyes’ of rockets that are ‘looking’ at us. Such systems will naturally be mounted on the sixth generation of jets.”

The development time frame suggests that KRET’s statement about its laser project remains close to science fiction at present. Destroying missiles with a laser is an alternate theoretical route to firing interceptors to detonate the warhead from a distance, though its viability hinges on many factors.

Against long-range missiles, such as an intercontinental ballistic missile, a laser would need immense heat to penetrate an exterior designed to survive atmospheric re-entry. Against short-range missiles, the laser needs to fire very fast at high accuracy.

All this is a tough ask from something intended to be mounted on a light and moving fighter jet aircraft, Michael Kofman, research scientist at CNA Corporation, tells Newsweek.

“It’s quite hard to generate the destructive power necessary for a laser on an aircraft, where weight is a premium, and somewhat unlikely that it would work given the small amount of time available to intercept the missile,” Kofman says.

Speculating on the likely target for such a laser, Kofman believes it is a theoretical upgrade from current defenses against portable air-defense systems—i.e., shoulder-mounted, guided missiles fired by troops from the ground. The launch time and travel distance to target such arms is brief, so defenses need to be lightning quick.

“It would have milliseconds to work, and therefore the availability of power required to affect the missile, given the short time available to hit it, is dubious at best.” Kofman says. “It’s unclear where the power would come from to make this laser work and sounds more like ‘self-PR’—a press release, the intent of which is simply to advertise the work of KRET.”