Sometime very soon, combat aircraft may be zapping threats out of the sky with laser weapons. “I believe we’ll have a directed energy pod we can put on a fighter plane very soon,” Air Force General Hawk Carlisle said at this week’s Air Force Association Air & Space conference in a presentation on what he called Fifth-Generation Warfare. “That day is a lot closer than I think a lot of people think it is.”
Some low-power laser weapons were on display in mock-up on the exposition floor of the conference, including a system from General Atomics that could be mounted on unmanned aircraft such as the Predator and Reaper drones flown by the Air Force. But the Air Force is looking for something akin to a laser cannon for fighter aircraft, more powerful systems that could be mounted on fighters and other manned Air Force planes within the next five years, Air Force leaders said. Directed-energy weapons pods could be affixed to aircraft to destroy or disable incoming missiles, drones, and even enemy aircraft at a much lower “cost per shot” than missiles or even guns, Carlisle suggested.
The Air Force isn’t alone in seeking directed energy weapons. The US Navy has already deployed a laser weapon at sea aboard the USS Ponce, capable of a range of attacks against small boats, drones, and light aircraft posing a threat—either by blinding their sensors or operators or heating elements to make them fail or explode. Other laser weapons are also being tested by the Office of Naval Research for use on helicopters to protect against man-portable antiaircraft missiles. (And there’s a railgun, but that’s not really a directed-energy weapon, and it’s too massive to be mounted on an aircraft).
The Air Force has been focused on a 150-plus kilowatt system under development by General Atomics in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, called HELLADS. That system is now moving into ground-based testing. But based on the results so far, the Air Force leadership clearly believes that HELLADS has come far enough that it could result in a field-ready weapons system by 2020. Even a stepped-down 100 kilowatt system could be capable of damaging or destroying aircraft and ground targets as well as missiles and drones.
General Atomic’s marketing display for the HELLADS laser weapon pod, being marketed as a weapon for the Predator-C Avenger drone.
Another emerging capability Carlisle discussed was what he called “cockpit selectable weapons”—smart bombs that a pilot can set properties of how and when the bomb will explode. These settings can be selected from the cockpit just before being dropped, depending on the situation in which the weapon is used. The smaller precision bombs will allow close air support and strike aircraft to carry more munitions in the same amount of space and limit the amount of collateral damage done by airstrikes.
In fact, the Air Force has had some of this capability since the 1990s with bomb fuse systems developed for the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the laser-guided Paveway bombs, allowing pilots to set whether bombs should air-burst, explode on contact, or delay explosion until after contact in order to penetrate deeper into hardened defenses.
The capability evolved further in 2006, when Boeing’s Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), the GBU-39, was approved for deployment and used against targets in Iraq. As its name suggests, the SDB is a smaller bomb that uses precision GPS guidance, and in later variants a semi-active laser targeting capability. Only 7.5 inches in diameter, 70.8 inches long, and weighing 285 pounds, the GBU-39 carries a 50-pound explosive charge; it can be selected for penetration (capable of going through up to about six feet of reinforced concrete) or air burst by the pilot or air crew before being released from its carrier. Droppable by just about everything capable of carrying bombs in the USAF’s inventory, the GBU-39 and its laser-guided variant have been used in strikes in operations against ISIS—what the military calls “Operation Inherent Resolve”—resulting in what Carlisle called “the lowest civilian casualty rates ever” for bombing operations. It was also reportedly used by the Israelis in 2008 to attack Hamas tunnel positions in Gaza.
The SBU has been a limited step toward the capability Carlisle was speaking of. The Air Force has just signed off on full production of a weapon that more completely fulfills the vision of a smart, jamming-resistant bomb that can, as Welsh said on Tuesday, “drop right into the enemy’s back pocket.” That weapon is Raytheon’s winner of the SDB II contract, the GBU-53/B—a small, self-guided bomb that can distinguish and lock onto targets on its own and can change how it explodes based on the selected target.
Proving that no defense program ever really dies, the SDB II uses technology originally intended for Raytheon’s Precision Attack Missile (PAM): a “tri-mode” guidance system that uses GPS assisted inertial navigation as well as infrared and onboard millimeter-wave radar with automatic target recognition features; and a “multi-mode” warhead that be used as a fragmentation for area effect against soft targets or a shaped charge to take out armored ones. It also has onboard data links both back to the aircraft and for forward ground controllers, so it can be redirected toward moving targets (a requirement Druyun dropped from the SDB program).
In theory, the GBU-53/B will give Air Force pilots the ability to react quickly to the need for close air support for troops on the ground or other emerging missions—an upgrade from the moving-target capabilities of the JDAM. Like its predecessor, it can sprout glide wings to provide even further “stand-off” range, steering itself down to deliver a more contained, precise fiery death to its target. And because of their svelte proportions, an F-22 can carry 8 SDB-II bombs in its enclosed weapons bay—and still have room for two air-to-air missiles for self-defense.
With innovation like the SDB-II coming along, Carlisle said that “the discussion of how to replace the A-10 is ludicrous. We have to talk about how to make [close air support] better.” And that means developing new tactics around weapons like the SDB-II, he said, rather than focusing on the low, slow-flying armored A-10—which would be vulnerable in anything but uncontested airspace, the Air Force contends. The SDB-II is also part of the Air Force’s plans for “global precision attack”—the ability to strike surgically with a small, guided munition anywhere in the world on short notice.
Hacking planes out of the sky
Gen. Carlisle also talked about how offensive cyberwarfare capabilities are an important part of the future combat approach of the Air Force—a vision put forward in the Air Force’s recently released Future Operating Concept. “It’s not about just putting warheads on foreheads,” he said at ASC this week. “If we can use cyber to deny adversary aircraft the ability to take off, that will change the game.”
The Air Force has been looking at ways to conduct cyber attacks against adversaries’ networks from flying aircraft—either from drones or from manned aircraft, injecting attacks into radio and wireless networks that could disable or confuse enemy systems. Those capabilities have already been tested and could soon be fielded.
During a press roundtable, Air Force Major General Burke “Ed” Wilson, the commander of the 24th Air Force (the Air Force’s communications and cyberwarfare force) and of Air Forces Cyber, talked about the ways the Air Force is looking to combine “non-kinetic options into the kinetic fight…bringing together the power of the air, space, cyber, ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and EW [Electronic Warfare] domains.”
Wilson said that the Air Force has conducted tests “where we asked the question, what if we—instead of jamming a target—put a tool on an aircraft that allowed us to touch a target with cyber? And yes, we can touch a target from an air-enabled network.”
The Air Force Future Operating Concept, a document that envisions how the Air Force will fight 20 years from now, presents the idea of offensive and defensive cyber-operators being integrated into joint command operations centers, using both air-based and other networks to try to disable enemy weapons systems, sensors, and support systems. It also anticipates that future enemies will do the same, attacking both commercial and military networks both for strategic and tactical purposes.
That has been a major part of why the Air Force has tried to tack hard toward cyberwarfare capabilities over the past 10 years, even putting weapons system designations on some of its network capabilities. And over the past few years, the Air Force has integrated cyberwarfare into its annual Red Flag war game, along with planning for space warfare (defending satellite networks and taking out adversaries’ satellite systems).
While Wilson said that cyber had been integrated into Red Flag for several years, Carlisle said that this past year was the first time the Air Force included cyber as a major aspect of Red Flag. “It took us 11 years,” Carlisle noted during his presentation at ASC. “We have to move faster than that—we have got to take advantage of this warfighting domain. Our adversaries have a huge capability here, and we have to be able to root them out in the same way we do in the physical domain.”