Air Force Wants a Laser Weapon on AC-130J Gunship

(U.S. Air Force image)

The head of Air Force Special Operations Command said he wants to to put a laser weapon on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship by the end of the decade.

Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold talked about the effort Tuesday during an interview with at the Air and Space Conference near Washington, D.C. The event was organized by the Air Force Association.

“I’ve got the space and the weight and the power” to install a potentially 120-kilowatt laser weapon on the next-generation gunship, he said. “I can carve out the weight” required, which is about 5,000 pounds, he said. “I’ve got enough fuel. Now we got to put in a beam director and I think the industry — if we get the right teammates together — can put that capability on an AC-130.”

The Pentagon has long been interested in developing directed-energy weapons. The Navy last year tested a 20-kilowatt laser aboard the amphibious transport ship USS Ponce.

The Air Force and the Pentagon’s research arm this summer began ground testing a 150-kilowatt-class electric laser built by General Atomics against rockets, mortars, vehicles and surrogate surface-to-air missiles at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The project, known as the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System, or DLWS, is based on Darpa’s High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System, or Hellads.

In a previous acquisition program called the Airborne Laser, a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser was installed and successfully tested in a Boeing 747–400 Freighter, but the system took up the entire aircraft and the acquisition effort was canceled in 2009 amid questions about its cost and feasibility.

AFSOC wants to first use a laser to defend the AC-130 from surface-to-air missiles, then for offensive roles, the general said.

“So first concept is defending the aircraft using high-energy laser capability against missiles,” he said. “The second is now to be able to use that high-energy laser in an offensive role against hardened targets. So the challenge is to have that capability by the close of the decade, by 2020, and I think we can do that.”

The effort is designed to develop the plane to defend itself against so-called anti-access, area-denial systems, Heithold said. “So that I can continue to operate the AC-130 in the environments that I need to operate it and survive,” he said. “I’ve got to fight my way to the target. I’ve got to fight over the target. And I’ve got to fight my way home from the target.”

One of the command’s dozen AC-130W Stinger II aircraft will be set aside for testing the concept, he said. The command learned a lot from the Advanced Tactical Laser program, he said.

“To me, the hard part of this will be tracking the beam,” Heithold said. “We can create a laser, I don’t believe that’s the hard part. You got to figure out how to off-board the heat generated and store it, I don’t believe that’s the hard part. You got to steer the darn beam at the seeker coming at you.”

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Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Wyguy

    Ohh Yeaaa

  • amauyong

    wonder if can do the same for the A-10….

    • WW2 geek

      The A-10 is retired );

  • amauyong

    or a zeppelin (moderized)….more stable gun platform…longer loitering time..etc..

    • brion

      easier target……

      • blight_adsfas

        Depends. If there’s enough reserve buoyancy and the cells of helium gas are well protected, you might need multiple MANPADS to bring it down. If they can be self-sealing as well this may reduce their vulnerability (versus engineering a lot of redundancy, using titanium and other weight-increasing factors).

        Obviously with a zepp/airship more weight means more gas volume required. A stupidly heavy airship will be a gigantic target.

        • Jeff

          As a matter of perspective a Zeppelin like the Hindenberg had a load capacity of 23,000 lbs. A C130 can carry in excess of 30,000 lbs. This just shows how much larger an airship would need to be scaled or the degrees it’d have to make use of alternative or exotic materials.

          If airships were to ever be used they’d either be limited to less dangerous environments to the same degree certain transports are restricted in the absence of air superiority or operating at extreme altitudes where they’d be outside the capabilities of most surface to air missiles.

          That said an airship wouldn’t be the easiest thing to design fuzing to strike. The vast majority of its volume is air and the skin would so easily be pierced it’d have a negligible impact on its inertia or momentum making it difficult to time the explosion to optimize damage.

          • blight_asdf

            No way to make buoyancy any more…buoyant.

            I wonder if the new plan is to heat helium to reduce its density even further, but even that will only go so far.

            The other option for transportation is WIG but WIG is even more vulnerable to attack.

  • Ed C

    So now they want to put frikin’ lasers on a frikin’ C-130…..

    • Chuck

      I mean, they’ve already put everything from rotary cannons to Howitzers to Griffin missile launchers on them…

  • They’ve already done this, so I’m somewhat confused as to why it’s any different than the devices they’ve been testing on the regular C-130s. I know people working on the coolant systems for them, so I know they exist.

  • Vitor

    The question is: does the laser perform better than a traditional gun and if so, for how much?

    • NathanS

      For industrial purposes we use lasers to cut through metal all of the time. In fact, the first laser cutter was created back in the 1960’s to cut diamond. This is just a weaponized version of one, which is much more powerful. I see no reason it wouldn’t be a good attack weapon.

      And for precision, you can’t beat the laser. And you can modulate how much energy you want on a target to avoid collateral damage. For example, if we spot one of ISIS’s commanders on the streets of Tikrit; we can’t just spray the street with 30mm shells from the gunships ATK GAU-23/A auto-cannon without risking significant civilian casualties. With a laser, it’s a matter of putting the dot on the forehead by the pointer and pressing fire.

      Couple that with virtually unlimited magazine depth, and why wouldn’t you consider it?

      • jbizzy

        I see no reason?. Ahh lasers or direct energy weapons don’t work because the material science has not been done.
        I guess some folks watch star wars and think it is real.

        • derf

          Doesn’t exist?
          Boeing has multiple weaponized laser systems, such as the CWS and HELMD.
          The US Navy deployed the LaWS aboard the Ponce last year.
          Israel is testing Rafael’s Iron Beam.
          The ABL worked, if not well.

          The age of laser weapons is here. It is no longer a matter of ‘possible’, just a question of ‘practical’.

          • oblatt23

            All operationally useless

          • Old Salty

            Every time some article like this comes out, the liberal know-it-alls come out of their little Luddite caves to proclaim that “it won’t work”, “they’ll just put mirrored surfaces on the missiles to deflect it” etc etc ad nauseum.

            What they are willingly ignorant of (but refuse to admit it) is that there are many ways to destroy something other than plain ordinary laser light. Try particle beam weapons, plasma cannons, and many varieties of laser light.
            The arms race is not about creating one weapon that will never be defeated by anything and you never have to improve on it. It never ever works that way, but the Luddite trolls just never get it. It is always a process of continuously improving technology, trying to one-up the enemy before he one-ups you. All weapons are like that: machine guns, cannons, knives, swords, planes, whatever.
            And yet we will continue to read the words of these incredibly ignorant people proclaiming that it can be easily beaten by “x”. Hello? Earth to the Luddites! It’s getting better all the time. Of course there are technical issues, but they are being overcome all the time.
            To every one else: sorry for the sarcasm, but I just get really tired of the Luddite comments. It gets very old.

  • LCDR Kent

    Why would Spec Ops want to do that? Oh, new high tech stuff.

  • Kenneth

    I’m sure my father would have liked, very much, to see that capability on a C-130.Even if at first it, is limited to defense only, I can’t think of an aircraft I would rather have flying over head.

    from: The son of a Specter!

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    If the initial intent is to defend the aircraft from missiles, don’t we need to budget weight, electrical power, and space for a radar system or (conceivably) something like the Distributed Aperture System from the F-35, to locate the threat and cue the laser?

    What kind of target could be hardened against the usual run of Spectre weapons and yet be vulnerable to a laser with a power still measured in kW as opposed to mW?

    • NathanS

      We already have active protection systems for our tanks, such as our Quick Kill system, Russia’s Arena, or Israel’s Trophy. Not to mention other mobile CIWS assets to take down rockets, missiles and mortars. So I’m just sure why it’s unreasonable to mount something similar on an AC-130?

      You can also use it as a precision weapon. I.e. take out an enemy commander in the middle a busy city street without hurting any civilians. You can’t do that with a 30mm auto-cannon.

      And we’ve been using laser metal cutters for decades in our factories. This is a weaponized version of that. No depleted uranium. No collateral damage. And it cuts through metal just fine.

      • PeleJay

        an AC130 is not as armored as a tank or APC
        in case you use an explosive system like Israel’s trophy for instance , it might cause damage to the air frame (not just the explosive from the anti missile system but the debris from the incoming missile)
        thus its literally “shooting yourself in the foot”
        they are looking at ways to engage incoming missiles from long range (don’t let them get close to the aircraft) and in addition would cause harm to the aircraft

        Just FYI there are missile that explode when close enough to a target , a Trophy system or the QuickKill might engage such a missile when its already too close

        • jbizzy

          Laser cutters work at very short distances. The air turns to plasma when you try to up the power. In space lasers would in theory work well but in air they don’t. As soon as you up the power it does not work. The best they can do is point on missiles and confuse them but even then it does not work. Then they over heat and there are all sorts of problems that most folks are too lazy to research.

          I suppose it is easier to just to watch star wars and dream.

    • citanon

      Ç130s can already have missile warning and dircm. DAS had its start as the f22’s missile warning system so its not too far fetched.

      Lasers hit specific parts of things instantly and cost nothing. So its not about destroying new things per se but more of certain things faster and with less collateral damage.

  • Mark

    No one has said it yet.. So I will. Pew pew pew.

  • ragincajun5454

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE make a requirement on the RFQ that the aircraft must also “have the nose painted with teeth and a large fin welded on top”

  • mhpr262

    Using it to take out a person will be very gruesome indeed. This is not like in the movies where a guy gets hit by a laser beam and drops dead instantly. Laser beams don’t drill through human flesh like a bullet does, they exposvely evaporate the water in the cells of your body.

    And the more water you evaporate the more steam and smoke (from burning clothes and body fat) you have that will weaken the beam and obscure the target. And the person you are shooting will not be standing still either, he will be writhing and twisting on the ground, sometimes presenting his back, sometimes his front, shielding his head with his arms, etc etc.

    I have never seen the effect of a 120kW beam on a person, but my guess is that you will have to literally cook the guy to death over a period of at least 30-60 seconds.

    • citanon

      A 150kw laser is putting a .50bmg amount of energy on an inch spot every .1 seconds. Result might be pretty fast. Something akin to a small explosive charge going off. Still would be gruesome but maybe not unusually cruel.

  • Kerberos

    Anybody but me thinking of this scene?

  • CalBob

    China will be sending some tech reps to General Atomics to gather information for competitive bidding on the contract.

  • Thanks for sharing :)