The head of US Air Force Special Operations Command has issued a “JFK challenge” to the defence industry to install a high-power electric laser on an AC-130 gunship by the end of the decade.

Lt Gen Bradley Heithold says just as US president John F Kennedy wanted to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, he wants a laser-armed gunship by 2020. The commander issued the challenge at AFA’s Air & Space Conference in Washington this week.

He wants the system to weigh less than 2,268kg (5,000lbs) and occupy a space no greater than one gun position on the latest AC-130J “Ghostrider” gunship.

HEL Avanger

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems has designed a high-energy laser tactical weapon module for its “Predator C” Avenger UAV (HEL Avenger), but it can also be adapted to suit the AC-130U Spooky and V-22 Osprey. The company is currently trialling its High Energy Liquid Laser Area Defence System (HELLADS) for the air force.


The general first announced his pursuit of a laser gunship in February, but his comments this week provide the first solid time frame for development and fielding.

Heithold says his command is already developing concepts of operation as well as “tactics, techniques and procedures” for how to employ an airborne laser weapon in combat. AFSOC has also prepared a “capabilities development document” that lays out the necessary key performance parameters.

“You have to have a wheelbarrow full of paperwork before you get a wheelbarrow full of money,” according to Heithold. “Nobody’s going to give you money unless you have fleshed out what you want this to look like and what’s the overall cost of the system.”

The intent is to create a laser powerful enough to knock out missiles defensively, but also to “burn a beer-can sized hole” in a vehicle.


In March, Lockheed Martin’s ground-based Advanced Test High Energy Asset (ATHENA) laser burnt a hole through a small truck from a distance greater than 1600m.

Lockheed Martin

That level of power has been demonstrated many times with ground-based weapons, but a much higher level of sophistication is needed to achieve the same results from the air.

One AC-130W Stinger II gunship has been spared from retirement to support development and testing, the general says.

“To me, the hard part will be directing the beam. We can create a laser,” he says. “If you’re shooting a laser from the ground you’re in a stable situation, but now you’ve got to put it in an aircraft.”

ABC laser turret

The Air Force Research Laboratory, DARPA and Lockheed began trialling the Aero-adaptive Aero-optic Beam Control (ABC) laser turret on the University of Notre Dame’s “Airborne Aero Optical Laboratory Transonic Aircraft” in Michigan last September.

Lockheed Martin

AFSOC’s pursuit of laser weapon technology coincides with an increase in US Special Operations Forces spending on science and technology. US Special Operations Command traditionally spends about 3% of its $10 billion annual budget on S&T, but that portion is being boosted to 5%.

In an odd twist, AFSOC has no plans to zap humans with the laser since that would go against several long-standing international treaties, like the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons.

Instead, the special forces community wants to disable incoming missiles and silently burn holes in solid targets like communications towers, boats, cars and aircraft.

Laser AC-130

The Advanced Tactical Laser was a previous attempt to employ a 100kW chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) from an AC-130 gunship. The emphasis has since shifted to electric lasers due to their reduced size, weight and power requirements.

US Air Force