USAF cancels plan for high-energy laser weapon on AC-130J gunship

U.S. Air Force photo

The US Air Force has canceled its plan to equip the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship with a high-energy laser weapon due to technical challenges. 

The information was first reported by, citing a spokesperson for the USAF Special Operations Command.  

The Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) was supposed to be integrated and tested on the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship with airborne testing scheduled to commence in January 2024 and be completed by June 2024. However, the project was eventually discontinued due to delays that caused it to miss its “available integration and flight test window.” 

The AHEL project has been in development since 2015, with Lockheed Martin receiving a contract in 2019 to integrate and demonstrate the system on the AC-130J. The envisioned laser system was intended to provide support for special operations by targeting communication nodes, vehicles, and power infrastructures on the battlefield, offering tactical advantages without alerting the enemy. 

The AC-130J is a heavily armed ground attack aircraft, adapted from the C-130 Hercules transport plane. Using two side-firing guns, it is designed for close air support, air interdiction, and armed reconnaissance missions. With a history of service dating back to the Vietnam War, the AC-130 remains a formidable presence in modern warfare. The latest version, the AC-130J Ghostrider, boasts upgraded avionics and weapon systems, further enhancing its capabilities on the battlefield. 

Despite the termination of the AHEL project, the technology developed may find application in other laser weapons programs. One such initiative is the Self-Protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, which aims to mount laser systems on fighter jets to counter incoming missiles. Testing for the SHiELD system is expected to proceed in 2024. 

In July 2022, Lockheed Martin delivered the first LANCE airborne laser system to the US Air Force Research Laboratory as part of the SHiELD initiative. LANCE, designed as a podded system for combat aircraft, is designed to shoot down missiles and light aircraft. Although the timeline for widespread adoption has not been disclosed, this delivery marked a significant step forward in developing directed-energy weapons for the USAF. 

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