The iconic Spectre gunship, now known as the Ghostrider in its latest configuration, could be deploying directed energy weapons against simulated ground targets asearly as 2022. US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has been developing the capability since at least 2015 and engineers believe they may be on the cusp of a workable system.
The trial will see a 60-kilowatt directed energy weapon mounted in an AC-130J Ghostrider. The question remains as to exactly what a directed energy platform can bring to the table that the Ghostrider’s existing capabilities – including a 105mm howitzer, 30mm GAU-23/A cannon and a range of small diameter bombs, Griffin missiles and Hellfire missile variants – cannot already prosecute. AFSOC, however, sees the test as a demonstration of a capability, a proof of concept that will open up further funding and research.
As it stands, the relatively low-powered 60-kilowatt platform would have a hard time damaging an armoured vehicle or penetrating a bunker or fortified position, typical targets of the AC-130J. Killing an individual enemy on the ground would also be problematic with the individual having to stand still whilst being struck by the beam – an unlikely scenario.
AFSOC argues that for instance there may be a requirement to disable a vehicle by burning out its tires or to conduct covert strikes that damage key equipment such as radar or communications masts without the telltale effects of the Ghostrider’s traditional weapon loads. Experts indicate that a larger platform, in the 100-kilowatt range, would be necessary before directed energy weapons could offer the ability to covertly kill.
Lasers are currently deployed by the US military in counter-drone operations with the Polaris MRZR mounted High-Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS) currently undergoing operational testing, including in Iraq. Overt Defense has previously reported on the 10-kilowatt platform. Whilst drones remain a valid target for directed energy weapons, a laser defense against cruise and ballistic missiles remains something for the future.
Mike Griffin, Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering, recently told Defense One that US directed energy platforms were not being developed to target ballistic missiles, despite statements to the contrary in the 2019 Missile Defense Review; “I want to put an end to that discussion. We’re not investing in airborne platforms for shooting down adversary missiles” although he acknowledged the possibility of satellite-based lasers being potentially employed.