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.