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Air Force Plans to Test Gunship Laser Next Year, Top Commando Says

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The head of Air Force Special Operations Command said the service plans to test an experimental type of laser destined for a gunship next year.

"I remain an enthusiastic supporter of doing this demo," Lt. Gen. Marshall "Brad" Webb, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said Tuesday during a briefing with reporters at the Air Force Association's annual conference outside Washington, D.C.

"If you put out a questionnaire to those scientists involved in lasers, you find about half and half -- half of them are skeptics, the other half are zealots," he said.

"So I think it's well worth what the Air Force and SOCOM plan to get to -- can we take the laser technology in its current state -- fiber, solid state -- and shoot from air to ground? Can we control the beam, and can we overcome the aerodynamic, aeromechanical jitter etc.?" he added. "I am very enthusiastic about that."

Webb's predecessor, then-Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, revealed the "moon shot" laser program in 2015 and pushed for a 60-kW or 120-kW high-powered laser for an initial demonstration -- depending on technology readiness -- for disabling stationary vehicles, aircraft and fixed communications nodes such as cellphone towers.

The Pentagon has long been interested in developing directed-energy weapons.

The Air Force and the Pentagon's research arm tested 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.

Other services have also experimented with the technology.

The Navy in 2014 tested a 20-kilowatt laser aboard the amphibious transport ship USS Ponce. The Army this year tested a 5-kilowatt laser from a Stryker combat vehicle and plans to test a 50-kilowatt anti-aircraft laser next year.

Webb said budget woes complicate the research efforts.

"There's a series of steps that we're going through that lays out a timeframe that gets us into the 2020s," he said. "It's a little bit of a challenge with respect to funding, from a priorities standpoint."

Webb said the initial demonstration "will happen in the next year, then we go airborne with shooting the laser a couple of years after that."

-- Matthew Cox contributed to this report.

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