The new test weapon is part of the AFRL Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program tasked with developing airborne laser systems.
Airborne laser weapons are nothing new. Experimental lasers mounted on aircraft date back to the US Strategic Defense Initiative of the 1980s, but producing a practical weapon system has proven difficult. Previous attempts have resulted in dodgy chemical laser weapons so bulky that they had to be mounted in a 747, but the development of solid state fiber optic lasers is starting to change the game.
Earlier this year, Lockheed's ground-based ATHENA system shot down five 10.8-ft (3.3-m) wingspan Outlaw drones by focusing its 30-kW Accelerated Laser Demonstration Initiative (ALADIN) laser at their stern control surfaces until they burned off, sending them crashing into the desert floor. These compact lasers consist of fiber laser modules where the active gain medium is made of an optical fiber doped with a rare-earth element like erbium, ytterbium, or neodymium. The optical fibers are flexible, so the laser can be thousands of meters long while taking up very little space.