A study by the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (AFSAB) has found that solid-state laser weapons are mature enough to be tested on aircraft, such as an AC-130 gunship.

The findings could boost plans by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) to mount a laser on an AC-130 and conduct a demonstration in 2020.

An AC-130. Photo: U.S. Air Force
An AC-130. Photo: U.S. Air Force

“The study found that there are operationally useful power levels that will fit within the size, weight and power budget available on that platform,” said Werner Dahm, the AFSAB’s chair and a former Air Force chief scientist. “So from a technical point of view, the maturity is there to be able to do a demonstration. Based on the outcome of that demonstration, AFSOC will determine whether that’s enough value for them.”

The laser could be used for offensive purposes, such as attacking buildings, cell towers, generators and vehicles, and to improve defenses against shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles, Dahm told reporters at the Pentagon Dec. 12.

In 2009 tests, an Air Force C-130H fired a chemical laser at ground targets. But airborne chemical lasers fell out of favor due to the need to maintain a bulky “chemical plant” onboard, Dahm said. By contrast, an AC-130’s existing power generators could run a solid-state laser weapon, the AFSAB concluded.

The AFSAB study, “Directed Energy Maturity for Airborne Applications,” was one of several the board conducted in 2016. Another, “Airspace Surveillance to Support Anti-Access/Area Denial Operations,” examined how the Air Force’s E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft and RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft could continue to provide a battlespace picture if threats forced them to stay hundreds of miles away from combat.

Other 2016 studies looked at “Data Analytics to Support Operational Decision Making” and “Responding to Uncertain or Adaptive Threats in Electronic Warfare.”

The AFSAB’s 2017 studies will address several new topics, including “Nuclear Surety and Certification for Emerging Systems Technology.” With the Air Force preparing to buy new bombers, air-launched cruise missiles and land-based ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons, the board will explore whether the Air Force has adequate measures in place to ensure the new, networked systems will work as intended and cannot be taken over by an adversary.

The Air Force has not “done certification of new nuclear systems in a long time, and these systems are different,” Dahm said. “It is an open question” whether the current certification process will need “routine” or “significant” change.

Other upcoming study topics are “Viability to Support Penetrating Counterair Capability” and “Adapting Air Force Test and Evaluation to Emerging System Needs.” The counter-air study will look at what technology will be ready to use on future fighter jets. The test and evaluation study will examine how to assess systems that increasingly use autonomy, disaggregation, networking and swarming.