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Flight Tests for Laser-Equipped AC-130 Expected in FY18
By Vivienne Machi

ORLANDO, Fla. —  Air Force Special Operations Command is “months to maybe a year out” from flight testing a directed energy weapon aboard an AC-130 gunship, its leader said March 3.

Feedback from initial tests of the capability at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, have allowed the command move forward with a proof of concept phase, said Lt. Gen. Marshall "Brad" Webb at the Air Force Association’s annual Air Warfare Symposium. 

The White Sands tests showed that a low kilowatt laser could be controlled and aimed. Next, "We will take the next step of upping the kilowattage and go from there,” he said. 

Special Operation Command's program executive office fixed wing has been working to outfit an AC-130J Ghostrider with a laser. Its stated goal is to equip an aircraft with a directed energy weapon by the end of the decade. SOCOM officials have previously discussed the possibility of outfitting an AH-64 Apache helicopter with a laser weapon, and analysts have noted it could also potentially be mounted on an MH-60 Black Hawk. 

The command continues to perform tests to see where it could place a laser weapon on the gunship, Webb said.

“There are multiple options that we got to play out,” he said. The possibility of placing the weapon in a gunport, or having it support the existing gunships, are options the service is exploring, he added. 

“That’s what we want to get to: Where does it make sense? What mix of weapons could you go with or should it go with?” he said. 

But the command remains short on funding, Webb said. 

“We have funding to do the first steps. Over the course of what we want to do with the program, we’re still short money-wise, but I am confident … we’ll be able to get more funding,” he said, adding that should the command receive more funding in fiscal year 2018, it could possibly go toward directed energy investments.

The continued interest of both government officials and members of industry could help bring more funding to the project, he noted.

“There are a lot of vendors who are really contributing to and continuing to push that technology along, he said, adding that companies have invested their own money into the project, though he did not say which companies.

The Air Force has been conducting a series of studies to determine how directed energy could be used as an offensive and/or defensive capability. AFSOC has been looking at the technology primarily from an offensive standpoint, while other commands have been investigating its defensive potentials, Webb said.

“I still contend an offensive capability, which is what we’re looking at … is contributory to the defense aspects that other commands are looking at,” he said.

The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command is studying where the technology might make sense as a defensive capability for tankers and other aircraft, its leader said March 2.

Gen. Carlton Everhart told reporters he was “all for it.” The command is in the process of working with the Air Force Research Laboratory and conducting studies to determine the feasibility of adding the capability to aging legacy aircraft such as the KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft, so they are able to support fifth-generation aircraft in the future threat environment, he said.

But Everhart noted that he did not see the technology fielded in the near future.

“I see it happening in the near-term future, roughly five to 10 years,” he said. “But I need something to be able to keep those aircraft viable.”

Acting Air Force Secretary Lisa Disbrow said in her keynote address that the Air Force is “accelerating investments in directed energy applications.” And Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters he was interested in how directed energy technology could enable a “silent sabotage” capability for the service.

As the military moves toward a future multi-domain war environment that must defend against attacks on land, at sea, in space, in the air and in cyberspace, the ability to strike an adversary without revealing an airman’s position could be beneficial, he said.

“When we drop the bombs, you know who we are, you know where we are. That’s an attributable effect,” he said."If all of a sudden, something goes away as a result of directed energy, that brings us unattributable potential that perhaps allows us to move in a new direction relative to how we create effects. So I”m one that’s quite interested in that.”

Photo: An AC-130J Ghostrider (Air Force)


Re: Flight Tests for Laser-Equipped AC-130 Expected in FY18

Lasers sound great in concept, but in reality, would they have the "explosive effect" from 25mm and 40mm cannon shells?  The shrapnel, light, explosions, and sounds of cannon shells have a psychological effect that a laser beam doesn't have.

And how about shooting into caves, bunkers, windows, tunnels, foxholes, and manholes?  A cannon shell can splatter destruction all over the place, but would a laser?  It's like shining a flashlight beam at the same spot---no explosive effect underground---no smoke, shrapnel, light, or noise to suppress the enemy underground.  A laser beam can't "turn dirt over" like an explosive round.  And until the 105mm howitzer is installed back into the latest AC-130s, having an AC-130 with no explosive rounds besides Griffen, Hellfire, and Spike missiles means there's no cannon rounds to collapse buildings, foxholes, walls, or structures.

Sure, a laser fired is cheap and one can almost never run out of ammo.  But truthfully, the USAF-SOC really needs to explore the advantages and disadvantages of using a laser in CAS, or else SOC will have one of those "We came, but we couldn't help because we didn't have the right tool for the job."
Peter at 3/4/2017 8:48 PM

Re: Flight Tests for Laser-Equipped AC-130 Expected in FY18

New types of weapons face huge legal (laws of war) barriers too.   In a ground attack mode, how many people will get blinded when I shoot this thing and it reflects?  Along side this barrier is the political look and public opinion of it as an acceptable form of warfare.  This is the type of thing that has kept the Active Denial system bottled up and not operational. 

I think it will be easier to field a laser shooting up, rather than down,  for the foreseeable future.
Weaponhead at 3/6/2017 10:36 AM

Re: Flight Tests for Laser-Equipped AC-130 Expected in FY18

It seems that both Weaponhead's and Peter's comments come from those who don't know:

1) How capable, ready, and terrifying a laser weapon can be to the enemy.  One would know this if one has been involved in the directed energy industry over the past decade.
2) The per shot cost is a fraction of the cost of kinetic ammunition, missiles, rockets etc.
3) The level of CONOPS that has gone into the use of these weapons to prevent injury to the soldier or the civilian.
4) The unlimited magazine the technology offers.
5) Ever watched a video of a very small 10 kW laser (we are talking 150 kW today) acquiring, tracking, and then shooting down  88 out of 100 cannon mortars going nearly Mach 3?
Chris R at 3/7/2017 10:29 AM

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