The AC-130 family is slowly morphing from cannon shell spraying aerial gunships to arsenal ships packed with a wide array of guided munitions and direct fire systems, and soon they will be carrying the most exotic weapons of all, those of the directed energy variety.

This is precisely why the USAF has retained some of its spare AC-130U “Spooky” gunships to be used as flying testbeds for emerging laser technologies. According to Lt. Gen, Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, the idea is that in the not so distant future not only will the new and ever evolving AC-130J Ghostrider be able to cook a single individual in a crowd from on high, or be able to disable vehicles with a high-powered laser, but it will also be able to disperse crowds via a powerful, non-lethal, “active denial system.

Such a system would use rapid bursts of microwave energy over a specific area, which makes individuals feel as if their skin is on fire, while at the same time having no long-lasting effects, if used correctly at least. Active denial systems, often referred to as “pain rays,” have been in development for well over a decade, and have even been tested in prisons here in the U.S., but such an evolved active denial capability would give one of the most deadly flying machines ever invented a true “less than lethal” option.


Once proven on the AC-130, an airborne active denial system could be deployed to other fixed-wing platforms, and domestic applications are not out of the question, something that will surely be controversial if it comes to pass.


Arming a C-130 with a laser has been a long-time ambition of the Defense Department. The Advanced Tactical Laser, which was in development in some form since the mid 1990s, cooked through the hood of a truck in 2009. Like its defunct bigger brother, the YAL-1 Airborne Laser, the Advanced Tactical Laser was a cumbersome chemical based system.

Now, with solid state lasers making huge strides, not just in output power but also in miniaturization, durability and usability, the goal of an operational AC-130 based laser system is totally feasible.

Because of its size, the C-130’s amazing adaptability, frequent use and the AC-130’s unique mission set, the AC-130J is a perfect place for the USAF to realize its growing directed energy weapons initiative operationally. What would be learned by AC-130J crews employing this new class of weaponry in combat could be migrated to tactical aircraft in the not so distant future as their more miniaturized and complex laser systems come on line. As a whole, directed energy weapons have the ability to change air combat in drastic ways, and the AC-130J Ghostrider could be the USAF’s first foray into this new combat reality.


The AC-130J Ghostrider is still in testing and there are serious kinks with the platform that are being worked out, but its additional performance, updated systems and wide array of potential armament, including lasers and microwave weapons, could enable it to be the most versatile combat aircraft in the entire USAF fleet. This is especially true for the wars we continuously find ourselves in, not the ones we love to fight “on paper.”

It may seem a bit ironic for an aircraft that is widely known as a brutal flesh slaying machine, but the next generation AC-130’s biggest accomplishment may be not having to kill at all, or if it does, being able to do so with laser like precision, literally.


Photos via USAF, source via Flightglobal

Contact the author at