USAF receives airborne laser weapon for AC-130J testing

Lockheed Martin announced on October 6 that it has completed the factory testing process for the Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) weapon that is bound for the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) fleet of AC-130J Ghostrider fixed-wing gunships.

The AHEL subsystem has since been delivered to the USAF for integration purposes in preparation for both ground and flight testing aboard the Ghostrider. Lockheed Martin was contracted to integrate, test and demonstrate the AHEL weapon system on the AC-130J in January 2019. Testing will now continue with the USAF under a rapid development schedule. 

AC-130J Ghostrider with its 30mm and 105mm canons clearly visible on the left hand side of the aircraft's fuselage. USAF photo by Capt Renee Douglas

Rick Cordaro, vice president of Lockheed Martin Advanced Product Solutions, said: “Completion of this milestone is a tremendous accomplishment for our customer, these mission success milestones are a testament of our partnership with the US Air Force in rapidly achieving important advances in laser weapon system development. Our technology is ready for fielding today.”

The Ghostrider is the latest fixed-wing gunship to enter service with the USAF and is the fourth-generation variant of the AC-130 family. The type officially began operations in February 2018 and has since replaced the USAF’s legacy AC-130U Spooky fleet, which was formally retired in July 2020.

AirForces Intelligence data states that the AC-130J is operated from Hurlburt Field, Florida, by the 1st Special Operations Wing’s (SOW’s) 4th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) ‘Ghostriders’ and 73rd SOS, along with the 57th Wing’s 14th Weapons Squadron (WPS). The 27th SOW also operates a detachment of the type at Cannon Air Force Base (AFB) in New Mexico. 

A crewchief from the 73rd Special Operations Squadron marshals an AC-130J Ghostrider to its parking location. USAF photo by Capt Renee Douglas

The AC-130J’s sole mission is to conduct close air support (CAS) and air interdiction operations. It is already equipped with a variety of weapons, including a precision strike package that comprises a 30mm GAU-23/A autocannon and a 105mm M102 howitzer. The platform can also carry standoff precision-guided munitions, including the AGM-114 Hellfire and AGM-176 Griffin air-to-surface missile, GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and GBU-53/B StormBreaker (SDB II).