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USAF prepares for rapid demo of high-energy laser weapon

The US Air Force has started preparing to rapidly stage a demonstration of a highly mature laser weapon system (LWS) for an unspecified “airborne vehicle”, with the potential for a follow-on production programme.

The plans for the near-term demonstration of a “High Energy Laser (HEL) Flexible Prototype” programme are revealed in an 11 May notice to potential suppliers from the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC).

The notice outlines a plan to pay a supplier to deliver a HEL prototype and perform a system level ground verification test of an LWS within 12 months of contract award.

“The success of meeting this schedule milestone is the primary factor for continued work toward the flying prototype and the possibility of future LWS production,” the AFLCMC says.

The new request for information comes about a year after Eglin AFB published an RFI for “Airborne Tactical Laser Technology”, which solicited information about various subsystems that would be needed for an HEL.

“Those responses have been reviewed,” the AFLCMC states in the acquisition notice.

Nearly a decade ago, the Air Force Research Laboratory wrapped testing of a 100kW-class chemical oxygen iodine laser on a Lockheed Martin C-130 after an Air Force Scientific Advisory Board report determined the weapon had “no tactical utility”.

But interest in such a weapon never waned — especially for Air Force Special Operations Command. Since the late-1990s, the organisation has lobbied for funding to develop a laser weapon for its C-130 gunships.

Following the demise of the Advanced Tactical Laser programme in 2009, AFSOC’s interested shifted to solid-state laser technology.

Last month, AFSOC commander Lt Gen Marshall Webb complained in Senate testimony that a programme to install a 60kW-class laser weapon on an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship by 2022 is moving forward, but is $58 million short of full funding levels.

Meanwhile, the AFRL also has funded a self-protect high-energy laser demonstrator (SHiELD) programme for aircraft.

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