Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
The Air Force’s Futuristic Laser Cannon May Never Get Off The Ground
Air Force Special Operations Command has been itching to add a frickin’ laser beam to the already-brimming arsenal of its AC-130J Ghostrider gunships. But plans for a high-powered add-on to the Air Force’s “ultimate battle plane” may have hit a significant obstacle.
The program is currently $58 million behind what’s required for “a full program” to start outfitting Ghostrider gunships with 60 kilowatt lasers by fiscal 2022, AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Marshall Webb told lawmakers on April 11. By comparison, the laser-outfitted Strykers currently undergoing testing by the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment for intercepting missiles and drones only fire at around 5 kw).
What does 12 times the power get you? A 60 kw high-energy laser “[can] achieve high precision lethal effects on targets with little to no acoustic signature and very low collateral damage,” emphasized Webb in his opening statement. At that intensity, Webb has said, a directed-energy beam can fry enemy command and communications systems, disable potential escape vehicles, and render enemy facilities without power — not to mention blind the bejesus out of adversaries caught in its path.
An Air Force Special Operations Command photo illustration of a laser-equipped AC-130J Ghostrider gunship in actionAir Force Special Operations Command/U.S. Air Force
This prospect of laser weapons ending up stuck in an R&D; “valley of death” for years was clearly a concern for lawmakers and military planners. During the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Martin Heinrich, Democrat from (aerospace-heavy) New Mexico, worried that U.S. Special Operations Command’s plan to initially demonstrate 4 kw and 30 kw directed-energy weapons — technological stepping stones on the way to an “operationally relevant” 60 kw system, which overcomes problems like the interference of dust and sand that can wreak havoc on laser-guided munitions — would delay the fielding of any potential laser system until 2030.
Webb concurred with Heinrich’s assessment, stating that the command “was starting to see funding” that could accelerate the development of the technology before noting the $58 million shortfall in the current fiscal 2019 defense budget proposal.
Funding levels have remained a major concern for direct-energy weapons in the years since the Budget Control Act of 2013 put military spending under a microscope. Consider the decade-long development of the Navy’s electromagnetic railgun project: As Task & Purpose reported in December 2017, advocates of the next-generation supergun worried that the defense budget would fail to allocate appropriate funding or a tactical demonstrator, an essential step to fielding the system downrange. While the railgun wasn’t completely abandoned, sources in February suggested the program’s diminished funding suggested its development has stalled.
Indeed, Webb’s been emphasizing funding as the key to all other technical developments. "The challenge on having the laser is funding," Webb said at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare Symposium in February 2018, Military.com reported at the time. "And then, of course, you have the end-all, be-all laser questions: 'Are you going to be able to focus a beam, with the appropriate amount of energy for the appropriate amount of time for an effect?'
While the Ghostrider was declared Initial Operating Capacity back in 2017, problems have dogged the much-anticipated battle plane in recent months well outside the laser question. A January 2018 after-action from the DoD’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation concluded that Ghostrider’s fire control systems “performed inconsistently when accounting for changing ballistic conditions,” frequently required in-flight recalibrations, and can’t operate at a full rate of fire without safeguards kicking in; Webb threw cold water on the report in February as “a lot of normal stuff that happens in test.”
Even beyond broader issues with the Ghostrider airframe, the message from AFSOC is clear: if lawmakers and military planners are actually serious about sending in laser-planes for some extra crispy close air support, they need to pony up the dough — and fast.
A major serving at U.S. Army Cyber Command has been charged with distributing child pornography, according to the Justice Department.
Maj. Jason Michael Musgrove, who is based at Fort Gordon, Georgia, has been remanded to the U.S. Marshals service, a news release from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Georgia says.
Navy senior leaders could decide whether or not to approve the new I-Boot 5 early in 2020, said Rob Carroll, director of the uniform matters office at the Chief of Naval Personnel's office.
"The I-Boot 5 is currently wrapping up its actual wear test, its evaluation," Carroll told Task & Purpose on Monday. "We're hoping that within the first quarter of calendar year 2020 that we'll be able to present leadership with the information that they need to make an informed decision."
Oklahoma Congresspeople slam private housing contractor at Tinker Air Force Base for negligence, fraud
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe and U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn leveled harsh criticism last week at the contractor accused of negligence and fraudulent activity while operating private housing at Tinker Air Force Base and other military installations.
Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referred to Balfour Beatty Communities as "notorious." Horn, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told a company executive she was "incredibly disappointed you have failed to live up to your responsibility for taking care of the people that are living in these houses."
The Saudi national who killed three students on a U.S. Naval Air station in Pensacola was in the United States on a training exchange program.
On Sunday, Sen. Rick Scott said the United States should suspend that program, which brings foreign nationals to America for military training, pending a "full review."
Security measures at U.S. military bases will be increased in the wake of the deadly shootings at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii and Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
In a message posted to Twitter, U.S. Northern Command, known as Northcom, said it has directed its installations to "immediately assess force protection measures and implement increased random security measures for their facilities."