Um, they probably aren't going to look like this, via Kevin Baird/Flickr.
In this, the futuristic year 2013, the most visible intersection of lasers and airplanes is assholes using laser pointers to blind airline pilots as they’re trying to land. But—finally using an idea I came up with when I was 10—the Pentagon is looking into bringing jets that shoot lasers into production. The Air Force wants to be testing the new laser cannon and other weaponry by 2022 and employing them by 2030. On their fighter jets. Fighter jets with lasers. The Aviationist reports that:
“Three new laser devices are to be created: small power marking laser, that would act as a marker and as a blinding weapon against the optical sensors of the enemy planes; medium power laser that is to be used against air-2-air missiles; and a high power device to act as an offensive weapon.”
This isn’t the first time the Air Force has used lasers. Laser-guided weapons date back to the early 1960s, and by the late ‘60s, lasers were steering Paveway bombs into bridges in Vietnam. Of course this is still a conventional exploding bomb, guided in a new way.
The Aviationist mentioned the Air Force was testing anti tactical-missile laser technology mounted in a 747, but cancelled they program.
There is quite a bit of on-going laser weapon research going on worldwide, but much of it is ground-based. The US is not only trying to put them on drones and also build ground-to-air “pod-mounted lasers.” The German defense electronics firm Rheinmetall is working on drone-zapping lasers, because drones, thus far, have proven incredibly difficult to shoot down using conventional weapons.
This last point is very interesting. In fact look at that last paragraph and all the mentions of drones. It’s not clear why exactly the Air Force is planning on modifying “fighter jets” in order to “provide air dominance in the 2030+ highly contested Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environments,” as the Air Force Research Laboratory put it, when it feels like fighter jets are already losing their relevance now.
The last time the US Air Force faced off in air-to-air combat was 22 years ago, in the first Gulf War. If the first decade of the 21st century is any indication, the odds of the US going to war against another threatening and comparable air force are pretty slim. When the Defense Department, along with the rest of the government, is already under a budget crunch, putting lasers on a fighter jet seems like mounting machine guns on a knight. It's bad ass, but feels a bit like overkill.
Of course, just because a technology is developed for American fighter jets doesn’t mean that it has to be used that way. We still sell our jets to countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and are competing with the French and British to sell them to Qatar. Plus, China continues to invest in fighter jets, and the Pentagon most assuredly does not want to fall behind. But considering that stealthy jet drones are on the way, and that the F-35, the jet of the future, remains a giant money pit, lasers mounted on fighter jets sound like something from a Star Wars future we're not going to see.