The newest AC-130J Ghostrider has 105- and 30-millimeter cannon, plus smart weapons such as the Small Diameter Bomb and the Griffin mini-missile. Credit: USAF photo.

You are hunkered down, trapped by enemy fire.

You can’t move ahead, you can’t move back … you can’t even lift your head without it being blown off — the enemy has the upper hand, and you know it.

Thankfully, circling high above this firefight, is an AC-130J Ghostrider Gunship — the aircraft that became a legend in the Vietnam War for hosing down the Viet Cong.

Nicknamed “Hell in the sky,” it normally features three … yes, three side-firing weapons — a 25mm gatling gun, a 40mm Bofors cannon, and a 105mm howitzer.

Easy to see how it got its name. Anything in that field of fire, about the size of a football field, will die.

But this time, it is equipped with some completely different — it is armed with a high-energy laser weapon — and, the aircraft is unmanned!

An operator at a ground station thousands of miles away, perhaps even on a different continent, receives a desperate plea for help by secure sat-phone — it is code-named, “Broken Arrow.”

It translates to a ground unit facing “imminent destruction from enemy attack” and all available air forces are to provide air support, immediately. 

A message is sent to the circling gunship, that is packed with defensive jammers.

Instantly, its artificial intelligence system kicks in — in seconds, it is able to discern who are the friendlies, and who are the bad guys.

The go signal is sent, and the gunship’s laser wreaks havoc on the ground. The US troops will live to fight again, as an evac chopper arrives to get them out of danger.

Rich Roberts, chief of the Aerodynamics Branch Store Separation Section of Arnold Engineering Development Complex, looks at a directed energy (DE) system turret in the four-foot transonic wind tunnel at Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee, in March. Credit: US Air Force photo.

That entire scenario, may be farfetched, perhaps something out of the future. Could it really happen?

You’re damn rights, it could. Laser weapons are no longer sci-fi. Neither is AI.

In fact, it appears to be happening.

Lockheed Martin has delivered the new Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) to the Air Force for flight testing on an AC-130J aircraft following a successful factory acceptance testing period, Defense Daily reported.

“Completion of this milestone is a tremendous accomplishment for our customer,” Rick Cordaro, vice-president of Lockheed Martin Advanced Production Solutions, said in a statement.

“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.”

Lockheed Martin received a contract in January 2019 to integrate and demonstrate AHEL on an AC-130J, with the laser system now set to go through ground testing ahead of demonstration on the aircraft.

In July, the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division then awarded Lockheed Martin a five-year, US$12 million deal for further post-delivery services with AHEL, to include integration and demonstration activities.

Tyler Griffin, business development director for Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission Systems’ advanced product solutions, told reporters the company could not disclose AHEL’s specific power level, but added it’s in “the same class as the HELIOS high-energy laser that was delivered to the US Navy.”

An artist’s rendering of an Air Force F-16 armed with a laser weapon. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Lockheed Martin delivered its production unit 100-kilowatt-range High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance, or HELIOS, to the Navy in January.

US Navy destroyers will soon be armed with new ship-fired lasers able to sense and incinerate enemy drones, low-flying aircraft and small boat attacks — all while firing at the speed of light, National Interest reported.

HELIOS is engineered to surveil, track and destroy targets from an integrated ship system consisting of advanced radar, fire control technology and targeting sensors.

The farther away an incoming attack can be detected, the more time commanders have to make time-sensitive combat decisions regarding a possible response. Therefore, having one system that synthesizes sensing and shooting changes the equation.

Lockheed Martin is also working toward outfitting a directed energy system on fighter jets by the middle of the decade.

“We’re committing to putting a laser pod equipped with a high-energy laser in the air within five years,” said Mark Stephen, business development lead for strategic technology development at Lockheed Martin’s missiles and fire control division.

The company is a core member of an industry team partnering for the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD, program, Stephen said during a media roundtable in September. 

AFRL is developing a directed energy system on an aircraft pod that will demonstrate self-defense against surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles, the organization said.

There is also a strategic missile defense potential being explored — the possibilities seem endless.

Pentagon officials say that even if laser weapons are not yet strong enough to, for instance, knock out an ICBM in its mid-course phase of flight beyond the earth’s atmosphere — they might be able to help with targeting or identification.

In this respect, lasers as sensors could help with targeting and sensor-shooter time when it comes to destroyer launched missiles developed to knock approaching ballistic missiles out of the air.

The technology might even have an Army application, through the Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser program.

“This is a 300-kilowatt class laser weapon system, which mounts on the ground vehicle to defeat drones, rockets, artillery and mortars,” said Robb Mansfield, senior manager of business development for laser and sensor systems within Lockheed Martin’s integrated warfare system and sensors business.

“The beam director is the optical system that puts the high-energy light on target and keeps it there with enough precision to defeat the threat,” he said.

According to a report in The War Zone, the Air Force has announced that recent directed energy (DE) systems tests have taken place in the four-foot transonic wind tunnel, or 4T, belonging to the Aerodynamics Branch of Arnold Engineering Development Complex at Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee.

By experimenting with a DE system in a wind tunnel of this type, it’s possible to assess how the weapon behaves when it encounters shockwaves left by the aircraft carrying it, as well as other disturbances that might affect the weapon’s energy beam and prevent it from engaging the target properly.

“The idea that this (lasers) is 5 or 10 years away is no longer the case,” says Chris Frei, director of short range air defense at Northrop Grumman Corp.

“In the fight, there tends not to be a ‘silver bullet,’ so the services are looking at a mix of different solutions, each with its strengths and weaknesses.

“So it is critical to have a system that can pull all that together so you can defend against 30 threats in the sky or a half dozen on the ground. Doing that gets the maximum effect out of any of these technologies.”

Evan Hunt, director of business development for high-energy lasers and counter-unmanned systems at the Raytheon Intelligence & Space segment agrees.

“Laser weapons will be a core part of layered air defense employed by DOD and its coalition allies. That means laser weapons in any integrated system we have protecting serious assets in our territories. In five years, any large base that needs to defend its assets will have laser weapons, regardless of service.”

In other words, whether you like it or not, laser weapons are coming to a war zone soon, and they can’t be stopped.

That, and the onset of artificial intelligence and robot killing machines, will only get bigger.

Welcome to the new world.

Sources: Defense Daily, National Interest, The War Zone, Military & Aerospace Technologies