General Atomics Plans 150kW Laser Tests; C-130 As Possible Platform

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:

General Atomics, whose MQ-1 Predator changed the world, is to start testing another potentially revolutionary weapon next month: a 150-kilowatt class laser.

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.

Nathaniel F

Nathaniel is a history enthusiast and firearms hobbyist whose primary interest lies in military small arms technological developments beginning with the smokeless powder era. In addition to contributing to The Firearm Blog, he runs 196,800 Revolutions Per Minute, a blog devoted to modern small arms design and theory. He is also the author of the original web serial Heartblood, which is being updated and edited regularly. He can be reached via email at


  • Mystick

    “Dammit, Kent why did you make that *#$% mirror?!”

    Some of you will understand. Others will not.

    • Anomanom

      Revenge, it’s a moral imperative.

      • Mystick

        I think the young people enjoy it when I “get down” verbally, don’t you?

  • Sgt. Stedenko

    Will this be used on Doctors Without Borders?

    • Cpl. Oknedets

      Sounds great for lasik surgery.

  • Not funny—-

    • Phillip Cooper

      Seems to be more and more anti type trolls around here lately…

      • KestrelBike

        Too true. And they don’t even make sense, it’s like they’re kremlin stooge-trolls or something.

    • Sgt. Stedenko

      I’m sure it wasn’t to the medical professionals who donate their time or to the patients who died in the attack.
      It’s a disgusting display of our government’s arrogance and ineptitude and for that I get called a Kremlin troll.
      I guess the truth hurts those who are so wrapped up in the American flag they cant see past the Made in China label on the flag.

      • boohoo


        • Jwedel1231

          Your name is oddly appropriate. Do you know Hodor?

    • iksnilol

      A hospital bombing isn’t meant to be funny. 42 people died for crying out loud.

      It also shows that questioning orders is a good thing, the troops in the C-130 questioned the legality but sadly they carried through their orders.

      They knew where the hospital and everything was, they literally had no reason to bomb it.

      A bit more info:

  • John

    *Yawn*, call me when you can put one on top of a SHARK!

    • Tassiebush

      Doesn’t fit on mutant sea bass either.

  • Tassiebush

    I remember many years ago hearing about an international ban on laser weapons designed to blind people. That actually sounds like a fairly reachable target…

  • Mystick

    Looks familiar….

    • Realist

      Screen grab from “Real Genius”?

      • Mystick


  • Southpaw89

    I give us fifty years or one world war before man portable laser weaponry is seen in the hands of elite units.

    • The Brigadier

      Probably more like five to ten years. Infantry carried rail guns in five.

  • gunsandrockets

    Part of the reason the US Navy advocates turbo-electric drive for future warships is to provide electrical power for weapon systems like lasers and rail-guns.

    It’s an old surface-ship technology, used on American battleships built before WWII. The most famous examples are probably the Lexington and Saratoga aircraft carriers of WWII (which were carriers rebuilt from battle-cruisers).

  • Bal256

    Something something… phased plasma… something something… 40 watt range…

  • Tassiebush

    A very interesting link there. Pretty disturbing about the incident of one used by Chinese in the USA

  • BR549

    Good link. No doubt, as the US has already proven its willingness to do with ASDs and LRADs, we will be seeing all this stuff make its way to be used against the US civilian population ……. for their safety, of course.

    “He may be permanently blinded, but he’s alive.”

    • The Brigadier

      These lasers are not to blind. They are designed to burn the wings off or any other part of an enemy’s plane almost instantly. Ground based versions as defense are already in place in some countries in the world. We have a kick ass one and the Chinese couldn’t steal that tech so they are several decades behind us. So is Russia. What I posted in here is was published in 1981 and in the late 90’s. Its simple in concept, but damned difficult in its application. We are ahead of our enemies with this tech as we are with our HAARP system and no one in our government has the balls to use either system until it will be too late.

  • tenmillimeter

    One more step towards laser drones

    • The Brigadier

      I am afraid you are right.

  • The Brigadier

    The Air Force tested a laser based on the anti-ICBM laser system called HELDAPS. HELDAPS was paid for by both the Ford and the Carter Administration and was finally tested in 1981 at the White Sands missile testing range in Southern New Mexico. The laser system was designed by New Mexico State University in Las Cruces NM. In 1981 the one Terawatt laser was fired at a jinking test satellite put into orbit for the test. The ruby based laser easily reached the 250 mile orbit of the satellite, but could not successfully target the rapidly jinking satellite. In 1996, new computer tech and especially the targeting software were tested and several more wildly jinking satellites were launched. HELDAPS burned them both in less then 2 seconds.

    It was this laser and its new targeting system that were mounted on two C141s, the Air Force’s giant cargo planes. The system was powered by small reactors on board that power Navy subs. Because the reactors could not reach the same power levels as the ground based sand batteries, another technological breakthrough, the C141s laser had an effective range of only about a hundred miles. Still it could hit and down most planes from high altitude before enemy bombers or jets could detect the laser equipped spacecraft.

    This new 150 KW laser is a lower powered one and its power source is still secret. Lasers and rail guns are the new paradigm. Its simply a matter of time before both become infantry, armor and aircraft weapons. Rail guns are already being mounted on the Navy’s newest combat ships and will replace the Vietnam era Vulcan/Phalanx system mounted on older ships and the AF’s Warthog close air support jets.

  • Secundius

    “Generally Atonic”, famed makers of the EMALS (Electromagnet Aircraft Launch System) THAT DOESN’T WORK and the 6.1-inch (155mm/64.5-caliber)64MJ Railgun THAT ALSO DOESN’T WORK…