Directed Energy Weapons on Aircraft by 2020, Air Force Officials Say

By Allyson Versprille

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Air Force officials said they are confident that the service can field a directed energy weapon on combat aircraft by 2020.

"I want a high-energy laser on an AC-130J gunship by the close of this decade," Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of the Air Force special operations command said Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association conference. "The technology is ripe [for doing this]. I have the space, I have the weight and I have the power on an AC-130J to put a high-energy laser on an aircraft."

Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, Air Combat Command commander, echoed the comments saying, "I believe that we will have a directed energy capability in a pod that can be mounted on a fighter aircraft very soon." He told reporters that he expected the technology would be ready by 2020, though he is pushing for an even shorter timeline.

In the past year, directed energy has achieved significant milestones. In August 2014, a prototype of the Navy’s 33 kilowatt laser weapons system was installed on the USS Ponce. In December, crewmen used it to successfully shoot down a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle and target high-speed small boats. The Navy's trial tests proved that the technology could be used in an operational setting.

As the Air Force advances the technology for its aircraft, the service plans to focus on using high-energy lasers in a defensive role before employing them in offensive situations.

"First move is let's get into a defensive capability to ensure that I can fight my way to the target, I can fight on the target and I can fight my way off the target — that's our job," Heithold said. The situations in which AC-130s can operate have been shrinking due to a growing threat environment. A directed energy weapon would broaden that operational area and allow the service to "zap" incoming enemy missiles, he said.

In an offensive capacity, the Air Force can use directed energy weapons to disable airplanes, vehicles and communications without an adversary's knowledge, providing a strategic advantage for the warfighter, Heithold said. Looking at past missions "had we … been able to disable a node somewhere without anybody knowing we had disabled that node, we would have had more success with the mission."

He challenged industry to come up with solutions. "You get 5,000 pounds and you get the space that the 105 [howitzer gun] is in … and I'll give you all of the energy off the airplane. I've got lots of fuel to make energy." This should be more than enough size, weight and power to handle a directed energy capability, he said.

Carlisle noted that the lasers that industry has already developed are allowing the military to employ this technology in smaller spaces and with more power than in the past. The main challenges that lie ahead are dealing with the heat generated by the weapon, shaping and controlling the beams and determining the size, weight and power ratio to access the peak amplitude and power.

The service has already made strides to accelerate the process for fielding high-energy lasers. The initial capabilities document for the technology has already been published and a draft of the capability development document is in the works, according to Heithold. 

Directed energy has also been placed in the program objective memorandum for fiscal year 2018, and the service has funded a RAND Corp. study to examine how high-energy lasers should be employed. There is also an ongoing study with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division to look at integration, powering the laser, dislocating heat generated by the weapons system and steering the beam.

There are already tactics, techniques and procedures in place for the employment of lasers in the battlefield that are being completed today, Heithold said. That is a "first" for this type of technological feat, he added.

There are still some tasks that need to be completed before the Air Force can field a directed energy weapon on its aircraft, he noted.  "We've got to subsystem downselect, we've got to publish the [capability development document  … and] we've got to conduct the test and evaluation," he said.

Topics: Armaments, Aviation, Science and Engineering Technology

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