Leaders from Air Force Special Operations Command wanted an airborne-mounted laser weapon by the end of 2019.
Now, they expect a demonstration in fiscal year 2022.
The 60-kilowatt high energy laser will be mounted on an AC-130J Ghostrider, a massively armed workhorse for the Air Force. The laser weapon will be a cherry on top to the gunship, which already boasts a 30mm side-firing chain gun, a 105mm cannon, AGM-176A Griffin laser guided missiles, wing-mounted GBU-39/B GPS-guided and GBU-39B/B laser-guided Small Diameter Bombs.
Unlike those kinetic weapons, the offensive high energy laser would be able to disable enemy systems stealthily. As envisioned, a Ghostrider could take out several aircraft, defensive weapons and sensors with its silent, unseen laser weapons before the enemy even knew they were under attack. There’s no explosion, sounds or flashes of lights to alarm the targets. An enemy combatant would only realize what had happened once they attempted to use a system that had already been disabled.
At the virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference May 13, Col. Melissa Johnson, the program executive officer for fixed wing at U.S. Special Operations Command, acknowledged the Department of Defense’s laser development efforts have not been steady over the years.
In 2015, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, former head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said he wanted “a high energy laser on an AC-130J gunship by the close of this decade."
Others have expressed skepticism about the near-term prospects for airborne lasers. Then-Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Steven Walker said in 2018 he expected airborne assets to be the last to adopt laser weapons due to the inherent size, weight and power constraints at play.
“This gets a lot of attention because, you know, over the years at DoD we’ve done a lot of work in lasers, but quite frankly sometimes it ebbs and flows,” Johnson acknowledged. “But here’s what’s really exciting — after a couple of years of really trying to get stable funding, we’re there.”
According to FY21 budget documents, the program will utilize rapid prototyping efforts to develop laser, beam control, power and thermal subsystems and then bring the systems together through a lead government integrator.
Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract for the high-power laser in December 2018 and is expected to deliver in early 2021. The total value of that contract is expected to be $19.3 million. Other aspects of the laser system are under development at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
Johnson said she is confident that the new offensive weapon will be ready for a demonstration in two years.
“We are on track to demonstrate at the end of FY22 airborne-wise with AFSOF on a C-130, so this will be pretty exciting, and if successful - which you know, we’re planning for success - then it will feed into future requirements and potentially a new program down the road."
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.