The AC-130J Ghostrider gunship just got a step closer to getting its laser.
Lockheed Martin said in an Oct. 6 release it has finished factory acceptance testing for its Airborne High Energy Laser and has delivered the laser to the Air Force to be integrated with other systems, ground tested, and then flight tested on its newest gunship.
The Ghostrider — the fourth generation and latest model of the Air Force’s AC-130 series of gunships — is already heavily armed with 30mm and 105mm cannons and AGM-176A Griffin missiles and has the ability to carry Hellfire missiles and GBU-39 small-diameter bombs.
But for years, the Air Force has been musing about the possibility of further arming the gunship with a laser.
Now-retired Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold in 2015 floated the possibility of adding a laser — possibly in place of the 105mm cannon — that could first operate defensively to take down a missile coming for the gunship. Or, Heithold suggested, it could be used offensively, to disable enemy vehicles or aircraft without anyone seeing or hearing anything.
“This isn’t Star Wars stuff, folks,” Heithold, then head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said at an Air Force Association conference that year. “The technology is ripe for doing this. … I’ve got the space, I’ve got the weight, and I’ve got the power.”
However, getting a laser on the Ghostrider has taken longer than Heithold originally hoped. He told reporters at that 2015 conference he wanted a laser-armed AC-130 by the end of the decade.
In early 2019, Lockheed was awarded the contract to integrate, test and demonstrate the laser subsystem on the AC-130J.
“Completion of this milestone is a tremendous accomplishment for our customer,” Rick Cordaro, vice president of Lockheed Martin Advanced Product Solutions, said in the Oct. 6 release. “These mission success milestones are a testament of our partnership with the U.S. Air Force in rapidly achieving important advances in laser weapon system development. Our technology is ready for fielding today.”
Lockheed is also working on its airborne laser program for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, under a $12 million contract awarded in July.
The Ghostrider is a significant upgrade over the older AC-130U Spooky gunships, boasting improved avionics, navigation systems and weapons. It reached initial operational capability in September 2017. The first squadron received a Ghostrider — the Block 20 version — in February 2018, and AFSOC got the more advanced Block 30 AC-130J the following year.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.