The AC-130J Ghostrider.
Air Force/Courtesy photo
- As the US military focuses on Russia and China, US special operators are stepping up their game.
- Those operators are looking for new weapons to prepare for the kind of war the US could face in the future.
- That effort may yielded a new high-tech weapon for one of SOCOM’s workhorse airplanes: lasers.
While Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on, the US military is continuing to prepare for a conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific region.
To deal with the Chinese military’s increasing capabilities, US Special Operations Command is rebuilding partnerships in the region and experimenting with futuristic weapon systems.
One concept being tested is a high-energy laser weapon, and SOCOM intends to put it on one of its deadliest platforms: the AC-130 gunship.
A high-energy laser weapon
An AC-130J Ghostrider over Wisconsin during an aerial demonstration, July 30, 2021.
US Air Force/Master Sgt. Christopher Boitz
First introduced six decades ago, the AC-130 gunship is essentially an aerial artillery platform. It uses the “pylon turn” technique to fly in a wide circle above the target area and dish out a steady stream of fire without having to adjust its angle of attack.
The aircraft is a favorite among special-operations and conventional troops because of the amount of firepower it can bring down on the enemy and the extended time it can stay on target and support troops on the ground.
US Air Force Special Operations Command, which is a component of SOCOM, is now looking to outfit the latest version of the gunship, the AC-130J Ghostrider, with a high-energy laser weapon.
Lockheed Martin said in October that it had finished factory acceptance testing of the weapon and turned it over to the military for further tests. At a special-operations industry conference in May, officials from SOCOM said the experiments with the laser weapon were moving forward.
“We’re actually doing some integration at the subsystem level. We’re still doing ground testing and haven’t put it on a platform yet,” said Rich Rodriguez, the technical director at SOCOM’s program executive office for fixed-wing aircraft.
An AC-130J during an aerial demonstration in Wisconsin, July 30, 2021.
US Air Force/Senior Airman Miranda Mahoney
Rodriguez said a ground test of the weapon should take place within a few months, and other SOCOM officials said that if the ground tests are successful, the high-energy laser weapon will be outfitted on an aircraft and presumably tested while airborne.
In 2017, Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, AFSOC’s commander at the time, described the capabilities that a high-energy laser weapon would bring to a gunship, telling National Defense Magazine that it could provide stealthy but kinetic capabilities.
“Without the slightest bang, whoosh, thump, explosion, or even aircraft engine hum, four key targets are permanently disabled,” Webb said at the time. “The enemy has no communications, no escape vehicle, no electrical power, and no retaliatory intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability. Minutes later, the team emerges from the compound, terrorist mastermind in hand. A successful raid.”
AFSOC’s desire to build a high-energy laser weapon for its AC-130J Ghostrider fleet comes as the US military as a whole prepares for the potential operational realities of fighting a near-peer adversary, such as China or Russia.
To remain relevant in contested airspace, the AC-130 will have to adapt. AFSOC has already begun adjusting by developing advanced weapon systems, including a standoff cruise missile that would be deployed by an AC-130 gunship or by its cargo aircraft, the MC-130 Commando II.
An illustration of an older AC-130 gunship equipped with a laser cannon.
“I would want an air-to-air capable weapon system in a fight with China due to their air force capability. As for close-air-support operations with troops on the ground, the 105mm I believe is still the best weapon system for soft targets and for danger close restrictions,” BA, a former AC-130 gunner, told Insider.
Weight is always an important factor for an aircraft, as it can limit operational range and loiter time over a target. Depending on the weight, a potential high-energy laser weapon would most likely have to replace one of the AC-130J Ghostrider’s current weapons.
The latest version of the gunship has two main weapons, the 30mm and 105mm cannons, in addition to its ability to deploy standoff precision-guided munitions. BA said he would swap the smaller caliber cannon for a laser aboard the Ghostrider.
Another potential impediment is whether laser weapons themselves are feasible. The US military has for years struggled with their technological maturity, their cost, and whether they can be effectively integrated onto ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles. AFSOC has been working on this project for seven years without any concrete unclassified results.