Lt. Gen. Brad Heithold, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command, wants to make the AC-130 a kind of flying aircraft carrier, launching mini-drones mid-flight to scope out threats and targets. Oh, and he wants the AC-130 to have a laser cannon as well.
Speaking to the Association of Old Crows’ annual conference on electronic warfare, Heithold didn’t spend much time talking about EW. Yes, the AC-130’s current defensive jamming and spoofing suite — comparable to that on the aging B-52 — will be upgraded on the future AC-130J model, but even that won’t be enough to protect the gunship against increasingly sophisticated future threats.
“It’s been very successful at this point in defending itself on the target,” Heithold said. “That is not going to be case going forward.”
Instead, Heithold argued, AFSOC needs new ways to make its low-and-slow gunships more survivable: “The key, I believe, is to pursue high energy laser capabilities.”
Heithold sees both lasers and drones as having both offensive and defensive applications. It was the defensive side he focused on this morning. By shooting down enemy surface-to-air missiles, for example, a laser-armed AC-130 could defend not just itself but other coalition aircraft.
After a year of talking with “every industry partner who’s ever even touched a laser…I know the technology has matured now,” Heithold said. “I believe we can put a high energy laser — offensive and defensive — on an AC-130 by the close of this decade.”