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General Atomics is to start testing a potentially revolutionary weapon: a 150-kilowatt class laser. It is not the only company developing laser weapons, however, “the technology is ripe for application on an AC-130”, says Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, head of US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), in an interview with Breaking Defense.

General Atomics hopes to see the Command install a version of the weapon on the AC-130 gunship in the next few years. They also envision equipping the company’s new jet-powered Predator C Avenger drone with a laser derived from their High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defense System (HELLADS).

Heithold elaborated on the various possible targets for an AC-130 laser. The silent, invisible beam might be used prior to a hostage rescue mission, for example, to covertly disable motor vehicles, boats, airplanes or any other “escape mechanism” an enemy might use to move the hostages or flee from U.S. forces. The laser might also be used to disable or disrupt an enemy’s communications, he said.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will run the live-fire tests at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The HELLADS beam will be fired at a wide variety of airborne targets over the next 18 months. It produces its silent, invisible, but blow torch-hot beam by pumping electricity through rare earth minerals to excite their electrons and generate energy.

HELLADS “is designed to counter rockets, artillery, mortars; counter cruise missiles; counter air[craft]; defend against surface to air missiles,” said Michael Perry, the vice president in charge of the company’s laser programs. During the tests at White Sands, the targets could include real rockets, real mortars, and real missiles.

According to breakingdefense.com, the system being tested is far too large to put on an airplane. But GA already has developed a smaller, self-contained Generation 3 High Energy Laser and is working on an even more compact Gen 4 HEL to respond to AFSOC’s goal of putting such a weapon on AC-130 gunships by 2020.

“The reason that I want it on an AC-130 is, right now, when an AC-130 starts firing kinetic weaponry, everybody knows you’re there,” Heithold said. “What I want on the airplane is to be able to silently disable something.”

Heithold envisions equipping up to five AC-130Ws with a laser whose beam could be aimed by a directing device on the left side of the aircraft and used offensively.

The Air Force is in the early stages of a separate program to develop a smaller laser that can fit inside a pod no larger than a standard 600-gallon external fuel tank and be used to defend legacy fighter aircraft such as the F-16 or F-15 against surface-to-air missiles. This defensive laser is known as SHiELD (Self-protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator).

Heithold said AFSOC is watching the SHiELD program but is not interested for now in pursuing the more difficult challenge of putting a defensive laser on its aircraft. “The hope is that the SHiELD program can learn from our efforts from putting an offensive capability on an AC-130,” Heithold said.

The Gen 3 system General Atomics has built can be entirely contained – laser system, power system and thermal management (cooling) system – in a box roughly 12 feet long, four feet wide and two feet high.

Perry said providing the electrical power the laser needs aboard an aircraft and cooling the system are the chief integration challenges, but they are relatively minor compared to the feat of generating a laser able to burn holes in steel from miles away.