AFSOC Boss Wants Directed Energy Weapons

The head of Air Force Special Operations Command says he is in the market for a directed energy beam weapon and plans to look at acquisitions possibilities as part of the 2017 defense budget.

Such a weapon could be used to knock out communications and power stations without the devastation and loss of life caused by bombs, rockets and missiles — something Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold said was on the mind of many who lived through Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989.

The operation to grab one-time U.S. ally and Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.

“All we really had were kinetic rounds coming out of the airplane and really what you were trying to do was dismantle the Panamanian defense forces, wall them off and do the mission we had in hand,” said Heithold at a meeting with reporters Monday during the 2014 Air & Space Conference in Washington.

There are capabilities already being put to him, he said, but the timing and perhaps the technology still is not right.

“I’m a fan of looking at directed energy weapons, more of a fan of non-lethal directed energy weapons, so I’ve always kept [planning] space on my AC-130s for them,” he said. His 1998 paper suggested taking out the 20mm gun and replacing it with a directed energy weapon, but the technology at the time required a space the size of a small conference room.

The technology is catching up, he said, and whenever he is at the annual conference he meets with industry representatives to find out what they have in development.

“The more mature the capability becomes the more intriguing it is to me,” he said.

Heithold said he has not set a timeframe for seeing an AC-130 toting a directed energy weapon, but the soonest he expects to bring it up for funding would be for fiscal 2017. The 2015 budget is set and the budget plan for 2016 is already being briefed at the Pentagon, he said.

“So the next opportunity to make any sort of ‘muscle move’ in the programmatics of what AFSOC will look like in the future is fiscal ’17, which … we start [building] any time now,” he said.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • Ranger Rick

    The range of possibilities for the use of directed-energy weapons is intriguing. I wonder what could be done now if the USAF used the A-400 instead of a C-130 for a gunship? Just a thought.

    • JohnQ

      And it will stay “[j]ust a thought” because we all know that it’s politically impossible for the Air Force to buy a large plane from Airbus or any foreign company.

  • John

    When you call for an AC-130, you want firepower, not a damn “non-lethal” directed-engery toy…

    • rtsy

      spec ops apparently disagrees

  • d. kellogg

    Perhaps this is just another defensetech error in using the wrong platform to promote an article, in this case a ground-based US Army HEMTT-mounted system,
    when what the USAF really wants is aircraft-based systems….?

    As such, here’s where the Army ~could~ step in and play the “Ground-based air defense is our area of responsibility” card…
    (notice we don’t have any USAF Patriot batteries, and USAF isn’t operating any of the Centurion C-RAM platforms in-theater, nor is the USAF a predominant funder of the EAPS Extended Area Protection Systems, the next-gen C-RAM systems in development).

    Seems USAF likes playing that Key West card when trying to fight against US Army fixed-wing programs….

  • B

    As mentioned this is for spec ops. Stealth is key. I’m sure it is much quieter that a 20MM. It’s use would be to stop people without killing them. Use in recovery missions is ideal and I’m sure we could find other practical applications.

  • BLWarmonger

    @John: Not all DEWs are non-lethal.

  • stephen russell

    Test on modified C17, AC130, C5? & or KC 135 type.
    Or reuse A10 to house Laser pod vs 20mm nose gun or add wings gun on A10 IE 50 cal MG & nose cannon is the Laser.

  • Kim

    Does this signal an end to “Kill ’em all, let God sort them out”?

    • tmb2

      From the article it looks like the General wants to replay Just Cause with the ability to blind sensors, disorient people, and temporarily shut down power plants and comms rather than simply bombing them all.

      • JCitizen

        Yeah! Shock and Awe is so yesterday!

      • d. kellogg

        because, why kill an enemy outright, when we can just humiliate them and strengthen their resolve to retaliate back at us even stronger because we allowed them to retreat and regroup and plan new atacks?
        (or maybe in the future, hashtag activism will actually prove effective by finally making adversaries feel bad about their uncivilized behaviors…)

        Far too often, an adversary is committed to dying for their cause.
        I say we indulge them quite gratuitously, rather than just piss them off even more.
        Perhaps a majority of the future’s DEW weapons should be set on “high” as the default power setting.

  • coach

    We didn’t worry about civilian in Hiroshima Or Ploesti..They all grow up to hate us
    Weed them out young

  • Old Spectre

    SOF flight tested a laser weapon on a C-130 in 2008. Weapon filled up entire cargo bay. Demo showed laser could track and destroy targets of interest. Need improvements in laser tech to make it a feasible weapon.

  • sooner3

    Unleash the Obama Love Bombs.

  • hclark

    We still have a Boeing 747 with a huge DEW/Laser mounted in it with lots of data points from successful testing as an ABM platform. It has been mothballed for 10 years or so due to lack of funding. The C-130 with the latest laser version may do very well in AFSOC tactical operations