In February 2015, the U.S. Air Force made a surprising pronouncement: It wants to put laser cannons on warplanes. Fast forward 10 months, and the intention hasn't changed -- but the timeline sure has:

We will put a 200 kilowatt laser cannon on board an AC-130 gunship. We'll do it in five years. Or less.

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Lockheed Martin's AC-130 gunship. Soon -- with lasers. Image SOURCE: FLICKR.

This shockingly bold pronouncement comes to us from the pages of DefenseNews.com, which last week attended a recent talk by Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) head Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold. Speaking at an "Association of Old Crows" symposium in Washington, the General laid out his ambitious proposal (including the above quote, as well):

  • The Air Force will take the Navy's groundbreaking (and successful) Laser Weapon System (LaWS), currently so big that it takes a 16,600-ton amphibious assault ship to carry it ...
  • Shrink it down to about size of an M102 howitzer (5,000 pounds, give or take) ...
  • Load it aboard a Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) AC-130 gunship ...
  • Open fire -- at 180 to 200 kilowatts a pop.

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THE U.S. NAVY'S LASER WEAPON SYSTEM HAS BEEN "OPERATIONAL" FOR over A YEAR. But tiny, it ain't. Image source: U.S. NAVY.

Details, details
There are, of course, a few problems the Air Force needs to work through first. Sure, Kratos Defense (NASDAQ:KTOS) has built a working laser gun for the Navy. But as you can see from the photo above, LaWS is a huge beast of a weapon at present. To fit it aboard an AC-130, much less lift it, the laser cannon must be miniaturized. (Hint: DARPA's working on that.)

Another potential hitch is the difficulty of firing a laser from a fast-moving airplane, through airborne turbulence, and just plain light-refracting air itself. Luckily for the Air Force, and for Lockheed Martin, DARPA is working on that problem as well -- and in fact, handed Lockheed Martin a contract to develop an Aero-Adaptive/Aero-Optic Beam Control for airborne lasers just last year.

And of course, there's the problem of powering this beast. So far, even the Navy has only managed to ramp up output from its LaWS to about the 33 kilowatt range. But not to worry, says Gen. Heithold. "We're pretty confident that" a C-130's engines can put out enough power for 200 kilowatts, and what's more, "we can do this in five years."

Why it's worth it
The reason why the Air Force is so intent on making its airborne laser a reality comes in three major parts: Strategy, stealth, and economics.

Strategy-wise, the big problem facing the Air Force in the 21st century is that as our foes grow more proficient in anti-access/area denial (A2AD) air defenses, they're pushing back the envelope within which U.S. combat aircraft can operate safely. This was essentially the whole raison d' etre of the F-35 stealth fighter jet program. But by equipping AC-130s with defensive laser weapons, we can make these birds essentially immune to any surface-to-air missile. A quick three-second burst of a laser can bore "a beer-can [shaped] hole" in a hostile missile, long before it becomes a threat to the aircraft. And that makes it safer for U.S. aircraft to travel farther from home.

From an offensive perspective, lasers are also much stealthier than missiles. A laser can destroy a target "very quietly, very clandestinely," using a light wavelength invisible to the human eye. This makes it ideal for missions where the U.S. might not want to advertise its presence (read: special operations).

Finally, from an economic perspective, there's great attraction in the fact that Kratos's LaWS laser can shoot down targets at a price of just "one dollar" per shot. That's a whole lot cheaper than a missile. And as Gen. Heithold observes, an AC-130 can carry a whole lot more laser "shots" than it could ever carry bombs, missiles, and howitzer shells: "As long as I have fuel on the airplane and I've got generators turning, I'm producing electricity [to power the] laser, so it's endless."

So if we were to sum up the advantages of putting a laser on a warplane, we can do that in under 10 words: Increased range of operations, superb stealth, and infinite ammunition. With arguments like those in its favor, I'd say there's no question the Air Force will continue pushing ahead on its plans to build an airborne laser -- to Lockheed Martin's great benefit.

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Lockheed's AC-130. Anybody see a big blank space WHERE we can put a LASER GUN on this thing? PHOTO SOURCE: FLICKR.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. You can find him on Motley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 321 out of more than 75,000 rated members. 

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