Those of you who believe laser weapons are right around the corner may be more right than you think. Laser weapons promise unique capabilities for destroying the vulnerable sensors apparati needed for both early warning and for modern precision guided weapons to hit their mark. Further, lasers can also be used against thin-skinned ordnance such as missiles (where the laser beam’s instant flight time is a boon to hit probability), and against other targets where a silent attack is needed. General Atomics, makers of the infamous R/MQ-1 Predator drone, are working on a 150 kilowatt laser, which could potentially be installed on an AC-130 transport-derived close air support aircraft. BreakingDefense reports:
Several other companies are developing laser weapons and “we’re looking at all of them,” said Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, in an interview with Breaking Defense. “The technology is ripe for application on an AC-130.”
General Atomics hopes to see AFSOC install a version of the weapon on the AC-130 gunship in the next few years. They also envision equipping the company’s new jet-powered Predator C Avenger drone with a laser derived from their High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS).
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will run the live-fire tests at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The HELLADS beam will be fired at a wide variety of airborne targets over the next 18 months. It produces its silent, invisible, but blow torch-hot beam by pumping electricity through rare earth minerals to excite their electrons and generate energy.
HELLADS “is designed to counter rockets, artillery, mortars; counter cruise missiles; counter air[craft]; defend against surface to air missiles,” said Michael Perry, the vice president in charge of the company’s laser programs. During the tests at White Sands, the targets could include real rockets, real mortars, and real missiles. “There’s a whole variety of targets that will be shot with this system,” Perry said.
The system being tested at White Sands is far too large to put on an airplane. But GA already has developed a smaller, self-contained Generation 3 High Energy Laser and is working on an even more compact Gen 4 HEL to respond to AFSOC commander Heithold’s goal of putting such a weapon on AC-130 gunships by 2020.
The possible targets for an AC-130 laser are many, Heithold said. The silent, invisible beam might be used prior to a hostage rescue mission, for example, to covertly disable motor vehicles, boats, airplanes or any other “escape mechanism” an enemy might use to move the hostages or flee from U.S. forces. The laser might also be used to disable or disrupt an enemy’s communications, he said.
“The reason that I want it on an AC-130 is, right now, when an AC-130 starts firing kinetic weaponry, everybody knows you’re there,” Heithold said. “What I want on the airplane is to be able to silently disable something.”
Heithold envisions equipping up to five AC-130Ws with a laser whose beam could be aimed by a directing device on the left side of the aircraft and used offensively.
AFRL is in the early stages of a separate program to develop a smaller laser that can fit inside a pod no larger than a standard 600-gallon external fuel tank and be used to defend legacy fighter aircraft such as the F-16 or F-15 against surface-to-air missiles. Known as SHiELD (Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator), this defensive laser is a pet project of Gen. Hawk Carlisle, who leads Air Combat Command.
Heithold said AFSOC is watching the SHiELD program but is not interested for now in pursuing the more difficult challenge of putting a defensive laser on its aircraft. “The hope is that the SHiELD program can learn from our efforts from putting an offensive capability on an AC-130,” Heithold said.
The Gen 3 system General Atomics has built can be entirely contained – laser system, power system and thermal management (cooling) system – in a box roughly 12 feet long, four feet wide and two feet high.
Perry said providing the electrical power the laser needs aboard an aircraft and cooling the system are the chief integration challenges, but they are relatively minor compared to the feat of generating a laser able to burn holes in steel from miles away.
“There’s very little technical question that you can do this,” Perry said of Heithold’s goal. “The question is how much they want to do how quickly.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Navy tested the Laser Weapon System (LAWS) onboard the U.S.S. Ponce, and in 2010, a previous iteration of the LAWS laser was used to shoot down two UAVs, successfully. The primary constraint for these weapons is power and bulk. The laser emitters themselves are large for the amount of power they are capable of outputting, and powering the laser itself is another problem entirely. Batteries are very heavy, relatively to chemical energy storage, and powerplants like nuclear reactors and internal combustion engines are not portable. Therefore, it will be some time before the technology to store energy and project it as a laser becomes efficient enough to enable laser small arms like those commonly depicted in science fiction, but ground-, ship-, and aircraft-based laser weapons are quickly becoming a reality for specialist roles.