Air Force Wants a Laser Weapon on AC-130J Gunship

(U.S. Air Force image)

The head of Air Force Special Operations Command said he wants to to put a laser weapon on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship by the end of the decade.

Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold talked about the effort Tuesday during an interview with Military.com at the Air and Space Conference near Washington, D.C. The event was organized by the Air Force Association.

"I've got the space and the weight and the power" to install a potentially 120-kilowatt laser weapon on the next-generation gunship, he said. "I can carve out the weight" required, which is about 5,000 pounds, he said. "I've got enough fuel. Now we got to put in a beam director and I think the industry -- if we get the right teammates together -- can put that capability on an AC-130."

The Pentagon has long been interested in developing directed-energy weapons. The Navy last year tested a 20-kilowatt laser aboard the amphibious transport ship USS Ponce.

The Air Force and the Pentagon’s research arm this summer began ground testing a 150-kilowatt-class electric laser built by General Atomics against rockets, mortars, vehicles and surrogate surface-to-air missiles at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The project, known as the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System, or DLWS, is based on Darpa’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, or Hellads.

In a previous acquisition program called the Airborne Laser, a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser was installed and successfully tested in a Boeing 747–400 Freighter, but the system took up the entire aircraft and the acquisition effort was canceled in 2009 amid questions about its cost and feasibility.

AFSOC wants to first use a laser to defend the AC-130 from surface-to-air missiles, then for offensive roles, the general said.

"So first concept is defending the aircraft using high-energy laser capability against missiles," he said. "The second is now to be able to use that high-energy laser in an offensive role against hardened targets. So the challenge is to have that capability by the close of the decade, by 2020, and I think we can do that."

The effort is designed to develop the plane to defend itself against so-called anti-access, area-denial systems, Heithold said. "So that I can continue to operate the AC-130 in the environments that I need to operate it and survive," he said. "I've got to fight my way to the target. I've got to fight over the target. And I've got to fight my way home from the target."

One of the command's dozen AC-130W Stinger II aircraft will be set aside for testing the concept, he said. The command learned a lot from the Advanced Tactical Laser program, he said.

"To me, the hard part of this will be tracking the beam," Heithold said. "We can create a laser, I don't believe that's the hard part. You got to figure out how to off-board the heat generated and store it, I don't believe that's the hard part. You got to steer the darn beam at the seeker coming at you."

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