Special Operations Aircraft to be Outfitted with Laser Weapon

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Air Force Special Operations Command expects to equip a directed energy weapon on its new AC-130J Ghostrider gunship by 2020, said its commander. 

Officials said the combat aircraft — which will be used for close-air support and air interdiction — is an ideal platform for a laser.

“Most of the senior leadership in the Air Force would argue that the logical step to the advancement of high-energy lasers in the battlefield is to use this AC-130 platform” and then move on to a fighter jet, said Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of AFSOC. “It makes too much sense. Use me as a way to get where you finally want to go.”

The AC-130J — a modified C-130 Hercules transport aircraft built by Lockheed Martin — has more size, weight and power than a fighter, making it an appropriate platform to use initially, he told National Defense.

AFSOC has been working with industry, Defense Department laboratories and think tanks to mature lasers. “We believe technology is ripe to move this forward,” he said.

Heithold described lasers as a leap-ahead technology over precision strike munitions. The development of such systems goes hand in hand with the Defense Department’s third offset strategy, which aims to maintain the United States’ technological edge, he said.

“The next evolution is here and this is where I would argue that I’m at the red zone,” he said. AFSOC is working closely with Special Operations Command’s acquisition arm to field the technology, he added.

AFSOC anticipates it will have its first laser on board a gunship and in demonstrations by 2020, he said. For now, the command is aiming to equip it on four systems, but that number could be adjusted. “It all depends on where this technology goes. You may find that eventually all AC-130s have it,” he said.

Without giving specific figures, Heithold said adding a laser to the aircraft wouldn’t be extremely costly.

“If I can get the department on board and a little bit of money in ’16 — and I mean a little — I can move the ball forward and [if we can] get enough money in ’17 — about $20 million — and then a little bit in … ’18 and ’19, we’ll field it,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s a lot of money. This isn’t a billion dollar” program, he said. The “investment in this capability has already been done. It’s been done by industry, the laboratories” and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Bill Lane, AFSOC’s chief of strike and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements, said a laser would be “another arrow in the quiver of the weapons suite of an AC-130J.”

The command has already submitted a concept of employment to the Air Force Research Laboratory to help them better understand how AFSOC would use the laser. They are also working on drafting a requirements document for the AC-130J, he said.

AFSOC is currently in a study phase, Lane said. Its acquisition personnel have contracted with Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren in Virginia to complete a two-phase study. Scientists and engineers at Dahlgren are responsible for much of the research associated with a laser weapon system that is undergoing demonstrations on the USS Ponce, he noted.

The first part of the Dahlgreen study is examining the maturity of systems developed by top defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and General Atomics. The second phase is to look at various design options. The study is expected to wrap up by the end of 2016, he said.

Once a design concept is settled upon, the command will release a request for proposals from industry, he said.

“We’ve haven’t gotten to that point yet, so a source selection would probably be over a year from now,” he said.

A laser on board a combat aircraft could be useful in a slew of different missions, he said. They offer users precision accuracy with low collateral damage. For example, such a system could easily target a communication node or power line. A kinetic weapon that explodes would cause widespread damage, he noted. Lasers can also be used defensively.

“When we say laser weapon, there are really two aspects,” Lane said. “There’s an offensive aspect where you would look at destroying certain enemy targets, and we think technology-wise, that would be the easiest to achieve at this point.”

“Then there’s also defensive capability where you would use a laser on your aircraft, for example, to counteract or shoot down enemy missiles. … That’s a little tougher technology-wise and probably a little further out,” he said.

In addition to having utility on the battlefield, lasers are also affordable, Lane said.

While there is an expense to install, support and maintain a laser system, “the cost per shot is really the cost of flying the airplane, having the engine generator supply the power. So it is very low cost … as opposed to say a missile or a smartbomb that you drop that could be anywhere from $100,000 a piece to $1 million.”

Lane did not specify how much each shot would cost, but the Navy has estimated that it could be as little as $1.

A laser would require a large amount of onboard power, he said. When a system shoots out a beam, there is a peak of high energy use but it is only for a short duration.

“You could have … battery power that would store up the energy and be recharged by the engine generators or you could have an additional generator in the aircraft that … using the aircraft’s fuel [could] provide that amount of power,” he said.

As for the positioning of the system, the laser could replace either the gunship’s 30mm or 105mm gun, he said.

So far, AFSOC has not run into any obstacles that would prevent a laser from being put on the platform, Lane said.

Industry has already begun envisioning other aircraft that could host a laser weapon on board.

Bob Ruszkowski, director for advanced air dominance and unmanned systems at Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, said such a system could one day be outfitted on the F-35 joint strike fighter.

“While we are confident we can do it, we still need to get” more data, he said. “For a supersonic jet … [there is] a little bit more work that needs to be done and some more demonstrations and more data that we’ll need to make sure that it is going to be low risk.”

Subsonic and supersonic aircraft are markedly different, he said. Additionally, tactical fighters are much smaller than an AC-130J, he noted.

“These aircraft have been optimized for very condensed packaging of the subsystems, so for an F-35 — or an F-22, for that matter — you’re probably … [going] to integrate the laser weapon system components or at least some of them in perhaps one of the weapons bays,” he said.

This could be done in a modular way that would allow a laser to be used for certain missions and then swapped out later for others, he added.

Lasers equipped on unmanned aerial vehicles are another possibility, he said.

“I’m more referring to the next-generation of unmanned systems” that will be developed in the next 10 to 20 years, he said. “I think we’re probably talking Group 5 or Group 4 maybe, depending on how laser technology matures.”

Group 5 aircraft include systems such as the Global Hawk. Group 4 include Predators and the Fire Scout.

In a recent conceptual drawing of a Northrop Grumman-built sixth-generation fighter, a laser weapon is evident on the aircraft. Northrop representatives were unable to comment for this article by press time.

Iain Mckinnie, business development lead for laser sensors and systems at Lockheed’s mission systems and training division, said the company is working on putting a laser on an Army truck.

The company is developing a 60-kilowatt system that will be outfitted on the service’s high-energy laser mobile demonstrator, he said.

“We’re very excited for it because it will be a … significant step forward in demonstrations of laser weapon systems,” he said. The program is on schedule and Lockheed plans to deliver the laser toward the end of 2016.

For the demonstrator, Lockheed is using a new modular laser approach with fiber modules, which offers flexibility and scalability, Mckinnie said.

The system works much like a prism when it breaks up light. “We have a number of fiber laser modules, we run them through an optical element that does the beam combination and out comes a single high-powered beam with very good beam quality,” said Rob Afzal, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin. Such a system could project a beam for a long distance, he noted.

The laser — which is being built at Lockheed’s Bothell, Washington, facility — could be scaled up to 120 kilowatts, Mckinnie said.

“To double the power, all you really have to do is build another set of these modules that we’re manufacturing and swap them in since we’ve designed the laser to have available empty slots,” he said.

Lockheed has looked at outfitting its laser on the Army’s family of medium tactical vehicles as well as the Stryker, Mckinnie said.

Jon Harper contributed to this story.

Photo Credit: photo illustration/iStock photo

Topics: Armaments, Aviation, Science and Engineering Technology, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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