SU-30SM, SU-35S, and SU-34 flying in formation - Sputnik International, 1920
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Pentagon’s Plan For First Operational Airborne Laser Weapon Bites the Dust

© AFP 2023A US Air Force AC-130 gunship on a training exercise.
A US Air Force AC-130 gunship on a training exercise.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.03.2024
Back in January 2019, Lockheed Martin was awarded a contract to integrate a high-energy laser on an AC-130. It was later announced that US Air Force Special Operations Command would be testing the airborne laser in-flight on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship in 2023. However, last year the trials had still not gotten off the ground.
The Pentagon’s ambitious goal of producing the first operational airborne laser weapon system has bit the dust.
Plans for testing a prototype Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) integrated on a AC-130J gunship have been tossed out by the US Air Force.

"After accomplishing significant end-to-end high power operation in an open-air ground test, the AHEL solid state laser system experienced technical challenges… These challenges delayed integration onto [the] designated AC-130J Block 20 aircraft past the available integration and flight test window," The War Zone cited Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) as confirming.

The AFSOC spokesperson added in a statement: "As a result, the program was re-focused on ground testing to improve operations and reliability to posture for a successful hand off for use by other agencies."
© Photo : USAFScreenshot showing a dated US Air Force rendering of an AC-130 with a laser directed energy weapon. USAF
Screenshot showing a dated US Air Force rendering of an AC-130 with a laser directed energy weapon. USAF - Sputnik International, 1920, 21.03.2024
Screenshot showing a dated US Air Force rendering of an AC-130 with a laser directed energy weapon. USAF
The US military had been touting plans of the first operational aerial laser directed weapon for years.
In 2019, Lockheed Martin won the Pentagon’s five-year AHEL contract. It presupposed supplying the laser source for the system, and then aiding its integration onto an AC-130J gunship. The idea was to come up with a laser weapons system that could be employed in "complex environments to enable joint/coalition SOF operations against targets such as communication nodes, light-to-medium duty vehicles, and power infrastructures,” as per a US Special Operations Command Fiscal Year 2024 budget justification book.
The laser, integrated with a beam control system, would have a 60-kilowatt power rating, the Air Force was reported as saying at the time.
Lockheed completed factory acceptance testing and delivered the AHEL to the AFSOC in 2021. But years of delay followed. At the time, it was acknowledged that the integration work and testing were to be carried out on an older Block 20 version of the Ghostrider, instead of the Block 30 variants. Accordingly, this would present a host of integration issues, and AHEL “might require quite a bit of additional testing,” one official was cited by media as saying.
The recently rolled out Pentagon 2025 Fiscal Year budget request does not make mention of any new funding for AHEL.
Furthermore, an ongoing review of current and future planned capabilities might result in the gunships in question losing their 105 mm howitzers. The justification for this, as per the publication, is that C-130Js might be required to contribute to future high-end conflicts, such as a potential one in the Pacific. For this purpose, the gunships might be fitted with a new electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar, "allowing the platform to detect, target, identify, and engage across a spectrum of threats at longer ranges and react with greater precision."
Plans have previously been floated to equip the AC-130 with precision-guided munitions with a longer reach - something that could help ensure the Ghostriders' further operational relevance.
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