The USAF dream of equipping the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship with a high-energy laser weapon system has come to an end

The US Air Force (USAF) dream of equipping the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship with a high-energy laser weapon system has come to an end. In fact, as first noted by Alert 5, the US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has officially shelved its Airborne High Energy Laser (AHEL) program due to “technical challenges” encountered during integration and ground testing.

An AFSOC spokesperson confirmed to that AHEL missed its “available integration and flight test window” for operations from an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship amid open-air ground testing.

Aimed to provide a covert, low-collateral-damage option for special operations by disabling enemy communication nodes, light vehicles, and power infrastructure with a powerful laser beam, the AHEL was slated for airborne testing to begin in January 2024, but those plans never materialized.

The AFSOC spokesperson said that while the AHEL achieved “significant end-to-end, high-power operation” during ground tests, the missed integration and flight test window prompted the command to “[refocus] on ground testing to improve operations and reliability to posture for a successful hand-off for use by other agencies.”

Airborne High Energy Laser will likely never see battle from an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship

In other words, even though the AHEL will likely never see battle from the catbird seat of a special operations gunship, it may live to fight another day as part of a different Air Force agency’s directed-energy efforts. In fact, according to Alert 5, the possibility exists for the underlying technology to be adapted for other platforms. One potential beneficiary could be the Self-Protect High-Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) program, which aims to integrate a laser defense system onto fighter jets for neutralizing incoming missiles.

Efforts to mount a high-energy laser on a fixed-wing aircraft were pursued by AFSOC since 2015, with Lockheed Martin receiving a contract in January 2019 to integrate and demonstrate an AHEL on an AC-130J. The defense giant delivered the system to the Air Force in 2021.

AHEL had been conceived by Lockheed Martin and was envisioned as a powerful tool for special operations, offering silent and precise engagement capabilities. Budgetary constraints played a role in the program’s demise: funding for AHEL was reportedly zeroed out in the 2025 fiscal year budget request, following previous reductions in 2024 and 2023.

The YAL-1 airborne laser testbed

Actually, the US military already pondered the idea of an airborne offensive laser weapon with the the YAL-1. On Mar. 15, 2007 it conducted the first in-flight test firings of its Target Illuminator Laser (TIL). Multiple beams of photons were directed against an NKC-135E Big Crow target aircraft off the California coastline. The kilowatt-class TIL tracks a potential target and measures atmospheric turbulence for the YAL-1’s main weapon, the megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser.

Primarily designed as a missile defense system to destroy tactical ballistic missiles (TBMs) while in boost phase, the Boeing YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed (formerly Airborne Laser) weapons system was a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (COIL) mounted inside a modified Boeing 747-400F.

After the first in-flight test firing at an airborne target, a high-energy laser was used to intercept a test target in Jan. 2010, and the following month, successfully destroyed two test missiles. Funding for the program was cut in 2010 and the program was canceled in December 2011. The YAL-1 performed its final flight on Feb. 14, 2012 to Davis–Monthan Air Force Base (AFB) in Tucson, Arizona to be kept in storage at the “Boneyard” by the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (309 AMARG).

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Photo credit: Lockheed Martin