The technology is almost ready to be outfitted in the service’s special operations fleet. Later, upgraded versions of the new AC-130J Ghostrider could be outfitted with directed energy weapons for precision targeting.
The service is testing its first AC-130J, and is building its next model with a new 105mm gun. The later versions, possibly in the 2020s, could remove the 105mm gun and replace it with a laser.
The service is not requesting money to begin the process of adding the laser to the AC-130J, but AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold said he is hoping for more research and development funding to “flesh out the concept.”
The laser would be added to a gunship already packed with weaponry. The new version of the AC-130 will also have, in addition to the 105mm gun, a 30mm cannon, Hellfire missiles, Griffin missiles and small diameter bombs.
The Air Force should also research more science fiction-style technology for the aircraft, Heithold said Tuesday at an Air Force Association event. This includes the active denial system, a microwave weapon in testing that is designed for riot and crowd control. The weapon fires a high beam of energy to create an “intolerable heating sensation” on the skin, according to the Air Force.
The weapon would be effective in controlling riots from the air and causing people to disperse, Heithold said. “To me, there’s great value in doing that,” he said.
The system being tested by the Air Force is placed on a truck and is designed for use by security forces for crowd control.
The AC-130J is outfitted with a common launch tube that can fire multiple munitions. In addition to weapons, however, the military should look at another use for the tube: drones, Heithold said.
Many of the aircraft’s weapons cannot identify and hit ground targets through a heavy layer of clouds. To counter this, the aircrew could launch a small drone through the tube to fly below the cloud layer and provide a video feed and coordinates to the weapons operators on the plane.
The Air Force’s first AC-130J has been in testing for about a year. A January report to Congress from the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office found some issues with the aircraft, including delays and vibration issues with the sensor suite. As of January, the aircraft had performed 36 test flights out of approximately 130 planned for a total of 97 flight hours. Initial testing and evaluation is expected to finish in May.
The service will field 37 AC-130Js with the first operational version expected in two to three years. The service now flies eight AC-130Hs, 12 AC-130Ws and 17 AC-130Us. All of the aging H models will be retired, and the service will keep a floor of 26 W and U versions.