by JAMES DREW
Much like the husky A-10 Warthog, the Air Force’s combat-chiseled AC-130 gunships can claim legendary status among soldiers, aviators, historians and politicians.
Steady-flying turboprop aircraft like the Spectre, Spooky and Stinger II gunships are continually on patrol around the globe, ready to rain down fiery spit and fury at a moment’s notice in support of American and coalition ground troops.
The flying branch is replacing the old gunships with a modern AC-130J named Ghostrider starting in 2018. This new version will have a 30-millimeter chain gun, 105-millimeter cannon and precision-strike missiles, making it one of the meanest killers on patrol.
But in the future, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold—the chief of Air Force Special Operations Command—wants install an airborne microwave energy gun on the Ghostrider, similar to the infamous Humvee-mounted heat ray the U.S. deployed briefly to Afghanistan.
He also wants to add a big, high-powered laser in place of the 105-millimeter cannon. Instead of blowing things up from the air, the future Ghostrider could zap them into cinders.
Heithold revealed this ambitious yet surprisingly real plan at the tail end last month’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida, in response to a question about ways the military industry could help his command in the future.
“You’re going to find this very hard to believe, but we don’t want to kill everybody that we have in our sights,” Heithold said. “There’s times, actually, where we would like to have non-lethal means to force them to stop what they’re doing, things like microwave energy guns.”
“It would be real nice someday, since we have the room on an AC-130, perhaps we should be looking at a microwave energy gun that makes people stop what they’re doing without having to kill them,” the general added.
The directed energy weapon the general referred to is an airborne version of the controversial heat ray, known officially as the Active Denial System.
The military deployed this non-lethal “pain ray” to Afghanistan in 2010, but withdrew the device before ever using it.
The weapon excites the water and fat molecules under your skin, much like a traditional microwave. It’s a frightening but non-lethal weapon, and likely risks inflaming sentiment against the U.S. were the military to ever zap a crowd of protesters with one.
But not to be outdone, the general mentioned adding a high-energy laser on the Ghostrider, too.
“Then secondly, a high-energy laser in place of the 105 on an AC-130J,” he said. “I’ve got my aircraft in a block build configuration where we spirally develop them. These are things that are out there in a Block 40, Block 50 configuration someday as we look to the future.”
“If we just want to take a comms node out in the middle of the night — nobody hears anything, nobody sees anything. It just quits working because we burn a hole in it.”
Sound farfetched? Nope. It turns out, the request is anything but science fiction, and would be doable right now if the government was willing to throw enough money at it.
The Navy recently deployed its “LaWS” Laser Weapon System aboard the transport ship USS Ponce in the Arabian Gulf to shoot down drones and missiles. The Army has its own laser weapon system, known as the High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator.
The Army is upgrading that prototype laser truck with a more powerful laser, which should be able to track and shoot incoming rockets, cruise missiles, artillery and mortars rounds.
According to Lockheed Martin’s laser weapons expert Rob Afzal, today’s weapons are essentially sophisticated optical fiber lasers designed originally for welding and cutting metal. They are far less exotic than the massive chemical lasers of the past.
At a Lockheed media event in February, Afzal said replacing the 105-millimeter cannon on the AC-130J with a high-energy laser weapon is possible, and in fact has already been done.
“Ever since the invention of the laser, the Department of Defense has wanted a directed-energy laser weapon,” Afzal said. “We don’t have a system to put on there today, but we think that it’s a funding-limited activity. I think the technology pieces are there today to put a system together, a first-of, to get onto a C-130 and fit and shoot out of that plane.”
“C-130s are very good platforms. It has the space and the lift capability. I don’t recall the model number, but versions have already been built where they’ve been able to put a beam director through the floor of a C-130.”
Afzal was referencing the Air Force’s C-130 Advanced Tactical Laser experiment, which successfully destroyed ground targets at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in 2009.
“The technology blocks are there,” he said. “Now it’s about putting these systems together. Get them on a C-130, get them on a ship and start demonstrating the utility.”
Afzal said the biggest hurdle is reducing the size, weight and power of airborne lasers while still generating a powerful and accurate beam. It’s also tough to produce an effective laser turret because the airflow around the aircraft reduces the quality of the beam.
He said Lockheed is currently working with the Pentagon’s experimental technology branch, DARPA, to overcome the physics behind the problem.
At this point, it’s important to acknowledge the flying branch’s most expensive and high-profile attempt at building an airborne laser weapon.
We’re referring to the experimental megawatt-class chemical laser the Air Force mounted on a highly-modified Boeing 747–400F airliner, designated YAL-1.
That program cost more than $1 billion, and the Air Force terminated it in 2011. The aircraft is now essentially a tourist attraction at the Air Force’s reclamation yard in Arizona. Was it worth the expense? Almost certainly. There are many far duller ways the government can burn your tax dollars.
Vibration problems threaten to delay the AC-130Jmedium.com