C-130 Hercules carrying a tactical laser
When three top Air Force officers speaking separately at the same conference all say they expect the service to demonstrate airborne laser weapons by the end of this decade it wouldn’t be wise to bet against it.
The general officers were Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, commander of ARFL, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, head of the Air Force Special Operations Command and General Hawk Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command. The event was the Air and Space Conference organized by the Air Force Association and held earlier this month near Washington, D.C.
Maj. Gen. Masiello outlined a three-pronged approach to airborne laser systems. First will be a defensive system with “tens of kilowatts” of power called SHIELD (for Self-protected HIgh-Energy Laser Demonstration). It will be powerful enough to protect fighters from missiles and scalable for use as an offensive weapon on larger aircraft such as gunships. It will be demonstrated around 2020, he said. SHIELD will likely use a turret to direct the beam and is also likely to be a podded system rather than fully integrated inside the airframe. It could possibly be carried by an unmanned "wingman” that could help manned fighters operate successfully in highly contested environments.
The SHIELD demo will also look at engaging ground targets on behalf of Lt. Gen. Heithold’s Air Force Special Operations Command (the Air Force equivalent of the better known Navy Seals), using the AC-130 gunship platform, which provides much more space, weight, and power than is available on a fighter aircraft. Heithold noted that an AC-130, could easily accommodate the 5-10,000 pounds of weight that would be required by the laser system and characterized a gunship with a high-energy laser as being just “a couple of years out.” One AC-130W Stinger II gunship, which was earmarked for retirement is now being held aside to support development and testing.
In a presentation on what he called Fifth-Generation Warfare. Air Force General Hawk Carlisle echoed the sentiments of his fellow officers by noting that the era of airborne lasers was “a lot closer than I think a lot of people think it is.”
General Masiello said that the initial defense system would be followed by a longer-range defensive system with at least 100 kilowatts of power, to be demonstrated in 2022. Lastly,he said, a 300-kilowatt offensive system capable of destroying enemy aircraft and ground targets at long range would be developed.