AFSOC AC-130J to Conduct Laser Weapon Testing in 2023

Fighter jet demos are set to take place in the summer or fall of 2023, though it’s uncertain whether these demonstrations will progress into a fully-fledged program.

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is planning to conduct flight tests of an airborne laser aboard an AC-130J gunship in 2023, which is a year later than originally scheduled.

A flying demonstration of Lockheed Martin’s Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL), to be integrated onto an AC-130J Ghostrider aircraft, is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2023 and run through the fall, according to AFSOC spokesperson Lt. Col. Becky Heyse. However, the spokesperson mentioned that the results of these tests will determine the laser’s future operational use, and there is currently no concept of operation or deployment defined for the high-energy laser.

The 60-watt laser was delivered to AFSOC by Lockheed in October 2021 after successfully completing factory acceptance testing. Initial plans were for flight demonstrations to take place in 2022. Lockheed continues to collaborate with AFSOC to integrate the AHEL laser with various subsystems such as thermal management, power management, and beam control. The company is also conducting ground testing in preparation for full system testing and an upcoming flight test in fiscal year 2023.

Mounting a directed energy weapon like a high-energy laser onto an AC-130J gunship has been a long-standing but somewhat elusive goal for AFSOC over the past decade. While the AC-130J Ghostrider is already armed with a formidable strike package including cannons and precision-guided munitions, a high-energy laser could offer the capability to discreetly shoot down missiles or disable enemy electronics.

Former AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold expressed strong optimism about laser weapons in 2015, expecting the technology to be available by the end of the decade. Lockheed secured a contract in January 2019 to integrate the AHEL with the AC-130J. Nevertheless, the program’s future remains uncertain.

US Special Operations Command has requested around $16 million in funding for fiscal year 2023 to continue laser integration on the AC-130J, an increase of approximately $4 million from the previous year due to planned flight testing. However, the decision to transition the program from technology development to a program of record will depend on AFSOC after the final flight demonstration. Factors such as technical trade-offs and the laser’s impact on the aircraft’s size, weight, and power demands could influence this decision.

There could be potential challenges as well, such as Lockheed’s AHEL being designed for the Block 20 version of the AC-130J. As all AC-130J Block 20s are being modified to become Block 30s, it remains uncertain how much time and resources would be required to adapt the laser design.

In conclusion, the Air Force Special Operations Command is preparing to test an airborne laser on an AC-130J gunship in 2023, with hopes of realizing advanced capabilities in directed energy weaponry. However, uncertainties remain around the program’s development, its operational potential, and its integration into the aircraft’s evolving configurations.


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