On Wednesday, Lockheed Martin announced that the U.S. Air Force had taken delivery of their new Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) weapon set to begin testing aboard AC-130J Ghostrider gunships within the next year.
“Our technology is ready for fielding today,” Rick Cordaro, vice president of Lockheed Martin Advanced Production Solutions, said.
“These mission success milestones are a testament of our partnership with the U.S. Air Force in rapidly achieving important advances in laser weapon system development.”
This new 60-kilowatt laser weapon won’t offer the same destructive power you get from the 150mm cannons Ghostriders are perhaps most known for, but it will offer a slew of new capabilities. Unlike the massive guns or the precision-guided munitions the AC-130J can already leverage, the AHEL will be able to take out targets from miles away without anyone realizing it.
While the Ghostrider is great at delivering holy hell to the enemy in the form of munitions ranging from 30mm rounds to AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, you won’t find many accusing the hulking aircraft of being discreet. That’s exactly what the AHEL promises to offer. The 60-kilowatt laser weapon isn’t particularly powerful, but it is incredibly sneaky. With no sound and no visible beam, the AHEL can engage targets from miles away, burning through materials, starting fires, and even detonating munitions all with the enemy none the wiser.
According to a slide presentation created by John Corley, Director of the USAF’s Air Armament Center, weapons like the AHEL offer the Air Force a degree of plausible deniability in its mission sets. In other words, this weapon can cause problems for the enemy and even destroy targets without directly implicating U.S. forces. That can be extremely valuable in the Grey Zone military operations of the modern era.
The Air Force refers to the AHEL’s ability to damage targets as “scalable effects,” meaning the beam could be used for something fairly small and innocuous like melting a vehicle’s tires or something a bit more conspicuous like disabling a communications antennae without any sort of explosion.
In other circumstances, the AHEL could be used to start fires within enemy positions, potentially detonating stored munitions or disabling important equipment without drawing the attention of defending parties.
The Air Force is currently aiming to hold live-fire demonstrations of the AHEL laser weapon next year.