Laser Weapons Could Be Outfitted on Special Ops Aircraft

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Air Force Special Operations Command may one day fire more than cannons and small-diameter bombs off its gunships, its commander said March 18.
AFSOC is considering how it could integrate emerging technologies such as laser guns and high-powered microwaves on its AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold.
“We’re moving in that direction,” Heithold said during a discussion at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute in Arlington, Virginia. “Industry partners out here have got the technology.”
Retrofitting AC-130Js with lasers is still in the distant future, he noted. “We think that there’s going to be a small number of them in the Block 50 configuration that might have high energy lasers.”
The Navy already has successfully deployed and operated its directed-energy laser weapon, known as LaWS, on the USS Ponce. The technology is appealing to military leaders because of its destructive power and its affordability compared to traditional kinetic weapons. LaWS — which runs on electricity — costs less than $1 per shot.
High-powered standoff microwaves are also on Heithold’s list. He noted there was “great value” in the technology, and that it is also a nonlethal weapon that can effectively stop enemies.
AFSOC currently hasn’t put any money into these initiatives, but researching innovative weapons and technology is something SOCOM commander Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel has demanded. “He wants some leap ahead technologies,” Heithold said.
AFSOC is focusing on recapitalizing its fleet, which includes the AC-130J, Heithold said. The AC-130J — which will be used for close-air support and air interdiction — is meant to replace aging AC-130 H/U/W gunships. The first is currently in testing and a second is being built.
J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, recently found that gunship developers were having trouble integrating the precision strike package.
“Problems integrating the PSP weapon kit onto the aircraft continue to delay portions of developmental testing by prohibiting weapons employment,” the 2014 office of the director, operational test and evaluation report said. 
“The visual acuity of the electro-optical/infrared sensors installed on the AC-130J is not sufficient for accurate target identification and designation because the new aircraft causes more vibration than the legacy AC-130W aircraft on which the PSP was previously installed,” it said.
Heithold said the vibration issue is now resolved. “Anytime you have an aircraft in test you begin to get the deficiencies report, they start to pile up. And initially we had some issues with vibration of the sensor. That’s already been resolved,” he said. “That issue is a non-issue at this point.”
In general, no showstoppers have been found during testing, he said. “There are no significant issues with the AC-130J at this point.”
Heithold noted the program is facing some delays because AFSOC decided to equip the new gunship with a 105 mm howitzer.
“I have caused a little friction because I put a 105 [mm howitzer] gun on it. I upgunned it because I want it to be a bomb truck with guns,” he said. Currently the aircraft can drop small diameter bombs and laser-guided weapons.
The 105 mm howitzer was originally not required, but Heithold said the weapon — which is on legacy AC-130s — was a critical need. It will first be integrated onto the third iteration of the AC-130J. AFSOC will add the gun to the first and second aircraft at a later date, he noted.
Photo: AC-130J Ghostrider (Air Force)

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Weapons Systems

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