The deadly AC-130 Air Force gunship is finally leveling up — with lasers. The badass plane, which is a first-string player in the U.S. Air Force gunship arsenal, is being fitted with a state-of-the-art laser weaponry system.

The new setup will be tested in 2022 aboard the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship. This will be the first laser system ever tested on a USAF gunship.

What Makes Laser Weaponry Such a Big Deal?

Equipped with a laser, the fearsome AC-130 can disable or take down enemy transport equipment on the ground without killing the enemies.

Laser weapons deploy concentrated light pulses that contain energy, which rapidly heats the target. Laser weapons can be deadly, but only with sufficient kilowatt power. The AC-130J will have a kilowatt power of about 60.

That’s enough energy to “melt a satellite antenna dish, burn a hole in the hull of a small boat, torch the arms off a quadcopter, or even ignite a rubber bladder full of fuel. It could also burn through the hood of a moving car or truck, disabling the engine and bringing it to a stop.”

Sixty kilowatts represent a “scalable” nonlethal capability. In other words, the power of a 60-kilowatt laser can be adjusted for a variety of nonlethal purposes. Although the laser won’t be strong enough to kill enemy combatants, it will nonetheless offer a variety of less-than-lethal options for disabling enemies and enemy equipment on the ground.

For example, the laser can deliver progressively serious hits to ground vehicles and water vessels that refuse to cease and desist. These hits include burning out the engine of a large combat truck or boring a sizable hole in the hull of a small fighting vessel. Tactics such as these will usually persuade the drivers of those vehicles to back off.

Future lasers will have the ability to kill as well as disable. For now, the 60-kilowatt laser will give U.S. commanders the ability to cripple adversaries without killing them.

What’s the Future of Laser Combat?

The AC-130 might appear to be the future of combat aircraft if it wasn’t still catching up with the past. In 2015, the Air Force challenged the industry to build a gunship with a 120-kilowatt laser by 2020. Instead, the AC-130J will start testing 60-kilowatt laser two years behind schedule.

Although laser-equipped gunships are unlikely to replace chemical energy weapons, they do have the unique ability to defuse dangerous situations and demobilize enemies without causing fatalities. That is a quality that other warships do not possess. Also, with 30-millimeter guns and an onboard howitzer, the AC-130 is still a very mean machine.

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