US Air Force Special Operations Command AC-30 Ghostrider gunships to get AHEL laser weapon system

The fourth-generation Lockheed Martin AC-130 gunship of the US Air Force, called the “Ghostrider”, is finally set to test-fire a high-energy laser in flight, seven years after the idea was first floated. Sakshi Tiwari reports on Eurasian Times.

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US Air Force Special Operations Command AC 30 Ghostrider gunships get AHEL laser weapon system 1 Lockheed Martin AC-130J Ghostrider gunship  (Picture source: U.S. Air Force)

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) will test an airborne laser on an AC-130J gunship a year later than initially anticipated, Eurasian Times reports. Hei of the ‘Spooky’ aircraft of the Vietnam war, the AC-130J is a highly modified C-130J aircraft with an advanced two-pilot flight station and fully integrated digital avionics.

The AFSOC spokesperson Lt. Col. Becky Heyse, announced a flying demonstration of Lockheed Martin’s Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL), which will be integrated on an AC-130J Ghostrider, would begin in summer 2023 and last through the fall, Eurasian Times reports. “Results of the testing will determine future operational usage,” she said, adding that “at this time, there is no concept of operation/employment developed for the [high energy laser]”.

The announcement comes a year after defense giant Lockheed Martin delivered the 60-watt laser to AFSOC in October 2021, after finishing the factory acceptance testing. The AFSOC has since worked on integrating it with other systems, ground testing, and readying it for flight testing on the newest Ghostrider gunship. The Ghostrider is already well-armed with 30mm and 105mm cannons, AGM-176A Griffin missiles, and the capacity to transport Hellfire missiles and GBU-39 small-diameter bombs. However, the Air Force has been working to equip the gunship with a laser for years.

Sakshi Tiwari recalls that, in 2015, now-retired Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold suggested replacing the 105mm cannon with a laser that could first fire defensively to stop a missile heading for the gunship. Or it might be used offensively to cripple enemy vehicles or aircraft quietly. Lockheed was awarded the contract to integrate, test, and demonstrate the laser subsystem on the AC-130J in 2019. However, the future of the AHEL aboard the AC-130J Ghostrider has remained a pipe dream for a long time.

Due to the anticipated beginning of flight testing, US Special Operations Command requested an additional $4 million ($16 million) for laser integration on the AC-130J in FY23 instead of FY22, Sakshi Tiwari writes. According to budget documents, this money also pays for pre-flight ground testing and inspecting the aircraft’s fitness. The Air Force previously conducted tests with laser weapons. The benefit of integrating a laser weapon system into an AC-130 gunship was tested in several ways in the 1990s and 2000s. AC-130 test bed aircraft was used to conduct several actual live-fire tests of the Advanced Tactical Laser (ATL).

The Lockheed AHEL was created for the AC-130J Block 20 variant, which could be another issue, Sakshi Tiwari writes. All AC-130J Block 20s are currently converting to Block 30 status, and it is not yet clear how long or how much money it will cost to change the laser configuration. As far as the AHEL is concerned, the capacity of the laser to harm targets is described by the Air Force as having “scalable effects” : it may be used to cause fires inside enemy fortifications, possibly exploding bombs that were stored there or taking out vital machinery, Sakshi Tiwari assumes. Such attacks would be covert and defensible, shooting an invisible beam of light at a standoff range of about 10 kilometers.