The head of Air Force Special Operations Command says he wants to put a laser cannon on the nation’s fleet of gunships by 2020.
It isn’t quite the Death Star, but in the near future, we’re likely to see super-powered lasers above the skies behind enemy lines, raining laser ammunition onto the battlefield.
Speaking at the Air and Space Conference in Washington, D.C. last week, the general in charge of the nation’s 19,000 air commandos says that, just as President John F. Kennedy wanted to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he wants lasers on gunships by the end of the decade.
The comments by Air Force Special Operations Command boss Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold are the latest in his pursuit of a laser-weaponized gunship. The command, based out of Hurlburt Field in Mary Esther, is already developing what are referred to as “tactics, techniques and procedures” — essentially an operations manual — for how to employ the airborne lasers in combat. The general also says he would like to pursue “less than lethal” weapons to deploy in combat.
“You’re going to find this very hard to believe, but we don’t want to kill everybody we have in our sights,” Heithold said. “There are times where we’d like to have non-lethal methods to force the enemy to stop what they’re doing — like directed microwave energy guns. It would be real nice one day, since we have the room on an AC-130, to look at a microwave energy gun that makes people stop what they’re doing rather than killing them.”
In regards to weaponizing the current gunships with lasers, Heithold has said his command sees the need for precise, on-demand tools to use on the battlefields of the future. “We’d like to look at high-energy laser weapons in place of the 105mm howitzer on the AC-130J,” Heithold says. “These are developments we’d like to see in the future.”
Using a hypothetical wartime scenario, Heithold illustrates the advantages of such a weapon. “We would like to take a communications node out in the middle of the night and nobody hears anything, nobody sees anything; it just quits working — because we burnt a hole in it.”
The Air Force has stated they want the system to weigh less than 5,000 pounds — roughly the weight of a Jeep Wrangler — and would like the laser to occupy a space no greater than one gun position on the latest AC-130J “Ghostrider” gunship, set to begin operational service in 2017. The Ghostrider, currently undergoing testing at Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, is set to be armed with a World War II-era 105mm howitzer and modern 30mm cannon, along with various guided munitions.
Heithold swears by the AC-130’s monstrous 105mm howitzer, stating that it’s both more accurate and much more affordable than the precision guided bombs and missiles that were set to replace it. While considered a “dumb” bomb, the gun’s precision is credited to its lower explosive yield than even small guided — or “smart” — bombs and missiles. Even still, the howitzer fires explosives that can destroy an entire city block in one swift pull of the trigger by an enlisted airman in the back of the aircraft — all while flying safely at 20,000 feet. The gun is so powerful that aircrew have said that when fired, the entire aircraft is pushed several feet in the opposite direction of where it’s firing, due to the massive forces produced by the cannon.
The cost difference is also no secret — a 105mm howitzer shell costs a few hundred dollars, while a guided bomb can easily cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Additionally, the AC-130’s big shell can arrive on station in just a few seconds and re-attack rapidly, which is much faster than smart glide weapons or even missiles. Adding a laser to the gunship’s weapon inventory, according to Heithold, could be cheaper and more effective than single-use munitions, like bombs or missiles.
Regarding procurement of the new weapons, Heithold says it’s important for the Air Force to do its due diligence. “You have to have a wheelbarrow full of paperwork before you get a wheelbarrow full of money,” according to Heithold. “Nobody’s going to give you money unless you have fleshed out what you want this to look like and what’s the overall cost of the system.”
Originally, the plan was to shrink the AC-130 fleet as the war in Afghanistan drew down and Iraq was supposedly in the rearview mirror. That didn’t happen. Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and continuing in Africa and the Middle East — the AC-130 has consistently been the most relied upon aircraft by the the U.S. and its allies. The fleet has been referred to as “aging warhorses” and have show their age with every rotating deployment. The Air Force and USSOCOM have nearly 30 gunships in operation around the world. By 2021, up to 32 J-model AC-130s may join the fleet.
While it may seem like this idea came out of a popular science fiction film, the Air Force, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the defense industry have been working towards placing directed-energy weapons aboard aircraft for years.
More than five years ago, defense contractor Boeing developed and tested a directed-energy chemical laser — dubbed the Advanced Tactical Laser — on modified Air Force C-130 aircraft. During tests, the laser was mounted to a ball turret on the aircraft’s belly. It required toxic chemicals to refuel and proved to be a dangerous process for ground crews. The laser beam generated was approximately 4 inches in diameter and cut like a blowtorch through solid steel. The new laser weapons are proposed to use electronic lasers rather than chemical directed energy.
“The intent is to create a laser powerful enough to knock out missiles defensively, but also to ‘burn a beer-can sized hole’ in a vehicle,” Heithold said.
One gunship has been spared from retirement to support development and testing, the general says.
“To me, the hard part will be directing the beam. We can create a laser,” he says. “If you’re shooting a laser from the ground you’re in a stable situation, but now you’ve got to put it in an aircraft.”
Air Force Special Operations Command’s desire to employ laser weapons has been met with an increase in spending on science and technology. The budget for US Special Operations Command is up 11% this year, to $7.5 billion — not including the more than $30 billion dedicated to classified programs by the Defense Department. Traditionally, USSOCOM spends about 3% of its budget on S&T, but that portion of the budget has spiked to 5%.
But in case you were wondering of a real life Star Wars coming to a war zone near you, the Pentagon has said they have no plans to zap humans with the laser, since that would go against several long-standing international treaties, like the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons.
Instead, General Heithold and the special operations community say they only want to use laser technology to deny the enemy the means to continue fighting — like disabling incoming missiles and silently burning holes in solid targets like communications towers, boats, cars and aircraft.
Until then, they’ll just have to make do with howitzers.