Widespread Applications Envisioned for Airborne Lasers

By Harper, Jon | National Defense, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Widespread Applications Envisioned for Airborne Lasers


Harper, Jon, National Defense


The Defense Department is looking to equip a variety of aircraft with directed energy weapons in the coming years as the technology matures.

Lasers hold great potential, said Jeff Saling, a strategic planner on the Joint Staff, and analysis lead for the Pentagon's Air Superiority 2030 study that was completed last year.

"If it can deliver the deep magazine that they're talking about, if it can also enable us to target quickly, that would definitely be a capability that's highly desired," he said during a recent panel discussion on Capitol Hill hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

"Once we can integrate those onto the platforms, those would be fantastic for everything from offensive capabilities to defensive capabilities," he added.

Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, said he and other Air Force officials recently attended a directed energy summit at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, to discuss the technology.

"We are going to go down that road," he said during remarks at an Air Force Association event in Washington, D.C.

However, there are many technical challenges that must be solved before aircraft can be armed with lasers, he noted. They include getting the size, weight, power and cooling components to required levels.

"We're making progress in reducing [the size of] weapons down to where we can do that on an airborne platform," Holmes said.

Figuring out how to aim and fire the laser through the atmosphere to hit a moving target is another hurdle, he said. "We think we know how to do that. We're doing some test work to get after it."

The service will likely equip larger aircraft first as it works through these challenges. "But eventually it will make its way down to other airplanes," he said.

The Marine Corps wants to equip the F-35B joint strike fighter with a directed energy weapon, said Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and deputy commandant of combat development and integration.

The service would probably start by putting the weapons on a relatively large airframe such as the AC-130 to meet size, weight and power requirements, he told reporters last year during a meeting in Washington, D.C.

"As soon as we could miniaturize them we would put them on F-3 5s, Cobra [attack helicopters] ... any of those kind of attack aircraft," he said. A laser weapon could even potentially be installed on an MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, he added.

Meanwhile, Air Force Special Operations Command is moving forward with plans to equip AC-130J Ghostrider gunships with high energy lasers.

AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Brad Webb envisioned them destroying enemy ground vehicles, drones, and communications and electrical power equipment.

The technology is "rapidly moving from the conceptual to the practical," he said earlier this year during a directed energy conference in Washington, D.C. "We're no longer talking about bulky chemical lasers, but streamlined electrical lasers."

In preparation for future laser system integration, AFSOC, U.S. Special Operations Command, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren and the Air Force Research Laboratory are partnering to measure the vibration and acoustic environment of the AC-130J. Data collection is taking place this summer, AFSOC spokeswoman Maj. Kristen Duncan said in an email.

During fiscal year 2018, the organi- zations expect to begin building the subsystems for an interim low-power laser system. Plans call for integration and flight demonstrations in fiscal year 2019.

"The incremental solid-state electric laser system demonstration is intended to prove the viability of a follow-on operationally relevant high-energy laser prototype," Duncan said.

Additional investment would be required to get the project over the hump, she added.

"The timeline for operational deployment of a high-energy laser system is dependent on funding availability and DoD approval for operational use," she said. …

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