Air Force Special Ops Short on Funding for AC-130 Gunship Laser

A photo illustration of an AC-130 equipped with a laser. (Image: U.S. Air Force)
A photo illustration of an AC-130 equipped with a laser. (Image: U.S. Air Force)

The Air Force is short of funding to speed development of a laser weapon for what is already one of the most lethal platforms in the U.S. arsenal -- the Special Operations AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, Air Force Lt. Gen. Marshall Webb testified Wednesday.

"We're $58 million short of having a full program that would get us a 60-kilowatt laser flying on an AC-130 by 2022," Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging threats.

Webb was responding to questions from Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, who said at the current pace of testing and funding, a laser weapon for the AC-130 would not be operational until 2030.

"I'm quite concerned with the crawl-walk-run approach when I think we're reaching a point in the technology where we could literally jump from crawl to run" on the laser weapon, Heinrich said.

Heinrich said the current plan called for progressive demonstration steps in moving from a four-kilowatt laser to a 30-kilowatt version, "which really isn't operationally relevant."

If the previous steps were successful, the Air Force would then move to a 60-kilowatt device and "at that rate the system would not be fieldable until 2030," Heinrich said.

"What's wrong with skipping the 30-kilowatt demo entirely and moving to something that could be used in the field?"

"I would couch this as a semi-good news story," Webb said. "I don't disagree with your assessment at all," he told Heinrich, adding that "we're starting to see funding that would accelerate what you're talking about" but there was still a $58 million shortfall.

Webb earlier pointed to the funding problem in a February roundtable discussion with reporters at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida.

Military.com reported then that Webb said "The challenge on having the laser is funding."

"And then, of course, you have the end-all, be-all laser questions. Are you going to be able to focus a beam, with the appropriate amount of energy for the appropriate amount of time for an effect?" Webb said.

"We can hypothesize about that all we want," he continued. "My petition is, 'Let's get it on the plane. Let's do it, let's say we can -- or we can't,"

The AC-130J Ghostrider's current suite of armaments led retired Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, the former commander of Air Force Special Operations, to dub it "the ultimate battle plane."

In 2015, a 105mm howitzer was added to the existing arsenal of AGM-176A Griffin missiles, GBU-30 bombs, and a 30mm cannon.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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