Air Force Special Operations Command has accepted that it will trade some offensive capability for cost savings and fielding time on its future laser-equipped Lockheed Martin AC-130J Ghostrider if the laser is mounted on the side of the aircraft.

Although a laser turret mounted on the bottom of the gunship will provide more offensive and defensive capability in the long run, the belly-mounted turret would cost more and take much longer to develop, an Air Force spokesman told FlightGlobal this week. The side configuration would require fewer modifications to the existing aircraft, he added.

A recent Air Force Scientific Advisory Board study examined the laser’s placement in a turret on the aircraft’s belly versus mounting the laser on the side in place of the 30-millimeter gun. The AFSAB found the side-mount position would reduce the area the laser could prosecute since the aircraft itself would block its effective hemisphere. Half of that hemisphere points upward, a direction that’s largely useless against surface-to-air missiles, AFSAB chair Werner Dahm said in a June 24 email to FlightGlobal. The belly-mounted turret would have full range to target SAMs.

“To keep demo costs down they [AFSOC] are considering putting the turret in the existing side hole, where the gun currently sits,” Dahm said. “This will still allow us to learn a lot about how to employ a laser in AFSOC missions, but it is not nearly as useful as having the turret on the bottom in the demo.”

But AFSOC chief Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, who is pursuing an aggressive schedule for the laser gunship and plans to field a testbed by 2020, would make the capability tradeoff in order to field the aircraft faster.

“I believe it’s the easiest thing to do, rather than a turreted system where you're bouncing the laser around it,” he told FlightGlobal following a speech at the June 23 Directed Energy Summit in Washington. “Let’s go simple, let’s shoot it off the left side and eventually it will evolve.”

Heithold argues that while AFSOC would lose offensive capability on the laser gunships, he plans to field the weapon on a very small number of AC-130s. AFSOC would maintain its kinetic capability with Griffin and Hellfire missiles still fielded on the majority of its gunships, but the side-mounted laser would fill a capability gap by delivering the element of surprise.

“I don’t plan to take the 30mm gun off of all my airplanes” he said. “What I plan to do is take it off three or four, and put in there a surprise package there with the laser.”

Both Heithold and the Air Force’s new chief of staff, Gen. David Goldfein, hope future directed energy weapons can deliver what they have coined as “silent sabotage.” During the summit, Heithold appealed to industry to field the laser gunship quickly for hostage rescue missions, but he also outlined his plan to operate a low-observable aircraft for silent sabotage. In a Congressional hearing in June, Goldfein described the Air Force’s plan to complete stealthy, laser attacks.

“Right now when I want to, or when we want to place firepower on the enemy, they and everyone else in the area knows we're there,” Goldfein said. “What we need is a capability to create an effect and not have them know exactly where it came from or who.”