WASHINGTON — Air Force Special Operations command is working with the Navy to leverage lessons learned from the deployment of a shipboard laser weapon system to inform the development of a miniaturized version that could be mounted on an AC-130 gunship.
The Air Force plans to install a high-energy laser on the Lockheed Martin special operations gunship by 2020, AFSOC chief Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold said Dec. 3. Heithold announced the pursuit earlier this year, but gave additional details during a presentation at the Association of Old Crows annual symposium in Washington, including the test aircraft to be used in the program.
“I believe that we can put a high-energy laser, offensive and defensive, on an AC-130 by the close of this decade,” Heithold said. “That’s the challenge – we can do this in five years, inside five years.”
For years, the Navy has been ahead of the curve on developing directed energy weapons. A team at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division designed, developed and integrated the Navy’s Laser Weapon System, which deployed aboard the Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce last year just off the coast of Iran. The 5th Fleet is already operating the laser, a powerful system capable of destroying or disabling targets with dazzling accuracy.
Now, the Air Force is catching up. AFSOC is working with the team at Dalhgren to examine the feasibility of miniaturizing the laser system so it can fit onto an AC-130, Heithold said. He wants the weapon to ultimately weigh no more than 5,000 pounds, which is essentially the weight of one of the gunship’s existing guns. The Navy has already developed the tactics, techniques and procedures for deploying the weapon, he noted.
“We’re using what they’ve learned on the ship capability – frankly it’s too big and bulky for an aircraft but we can miniaturize this,” Heithold said. “We’re pretty confident that we have [space, weight and power] on a C-130.”
AFSOC is also working with the Scientific Advisory Board and the Rand Corporation on additional studies looking into the feasibility of the project, he added.
AFSOC plans to use a 180-200 kilowatt laser weapon in both an offensive and defensive role on the AC-130, Heithold told Defense News after his presentation. The former is the easier project because it involves simply installing a beam-steering device on the side of the aircraft and using the laser like a gun to shoot down targets, Heithold said. Deploying the weapon in a defensive role involves installing multiple sensors that can detect targets 360 degrees around the aircraft, he explained.
During a mission, the laser can be used to defend not just a single gunship but the entire special operations strike package, Heithold stressed during the presentation.
A laser weapon installed on a gunship will be particularly useful in disabling critical enemy systems, such as power generators and communications towers, he noted.
“Wouldn’t it [be] nice if from a distance, very quietly, very clandestinely, with a high-energy laser in about a six-second burst on the engine in the wing on the flap, disable the airplane, and nobody knows it because nobody heard it or saw it?” Heithold said, describing a scenario in which US operators could impair enemy forces without putting soldiers in harm's way. “Instead of putting people in the water to disable the boat, zap it with a three-second burst, you got a beer-can hole in the engine.”
Another advantage of using a laser, as opposed to traditional munitions, is that the ammunition stock is “endless” because laser draws on electricity stored in the aircraft’s generators, Heithold told Defense News.
“As long as I have fuel on the airplane and I’ve got generators turning, I’m producing electricity,” Heithold said. “Electricity is going into the batteries, it’s being stored and it’s producing a laser, so it’s endless.”
Integrating a laser weapon system on the AC-130 is critical to ensuring the aircraft’s relevance in an evolving threat environment, Heithold said during the presentation. Right now, the AC-130 has a defensive suite about equivalent to that of a legacy B-52 bomber, he noted.
“We’ve got to stop the shrinkage of areas in which we can operate and expand [AC-130s], so how do we do that?” Heithold said. “The key I believe is to pursue high energy laser capability on this airplane.”
AFSOC is also exploring the feasibility of dropping small, expendable, unmanned aerial vehicles from the AC-130s beneath cloud cover to detect targets. These tube-launched UAVs could be dropped from the back of the gunship to fly below the clouds. The sensor is controlled remotely from the gunship, allowing operators to direct and receive critical data from the UAV.
AFSOC is planning a combat demonstration of this concept, known as the Tactical Off-board Sensor, Heithold said.
Developing this new capability could help avoid incidents like the Oct. 3 bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, by a US AC-130, which killed 30 people, Heithold stressed. The crew pilots and US commanders overseeing the operation misidentified the hospital as a target, according to an investigation that blamed the mistake on “human error, compounded by systems and procedural failures.”
“That’s exactly why we’re pursuing this, that’s why the urgency in this,” Heithold said. “In a case like that, had you had another set of eyeballs … I get a heck of a lot more fidelity on the target back to the airplane.”