It's been five years in the making, but the US Air Force is reportedly drawing up plans to test a laser gunship by 2022 – in a move that could change warfare as we know it.
The USAF's Special Operations Command has long harboured plans to mount a high-energy laser weapon on its newest gunship, the AC130J.
Now, according to one program office involved, a 60-kilowatt laser will be tested in 2022.
Speaking at the Virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association last week, Air Force Col. Melissa Johnson, program executive officer for fixed-wing programs at Special Operations Command, revealed recent progress on the scheme.
She said: "If it is successful – and we are planning for success – then it will feed into our new requirements and potentially a new program down the road.
"If this goes forward past the demo ... we'll have an additional [research, development, test and evaluation] program going forward."
The weapon has previously been tested, but only on the ground in joint experiments with the US Navy at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.
But now, Col Johnson revealed, the Air Force has been given the financial go ahead to start testing it onboard an AC-130 aircraft in 2022.
The AC-130 can be equipped with an 30mm cannon that is so accurate it is "almost like a sniper rifle", Col Tom Palenske of the 1st Special Operations Wing had previously announced.
But a laser has always been viewed as the ultimate ace in the hole.
"If you're flying along and your mission is to disable an airplane or a car, like when we took down Noriega back in the day, now, as opposed to sending a Navy SEAL team to go disable [aircraft] on the ground, you make a pass over that thing with an airborne laser and burn a hole through its engine," Col. Palenske said.
Palenske was referring to 1989's Operation Nifty Package mission to capture and remove Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega from power, during which a SEAL team "disabled his aircraft so he couldn't escape."
With a laser, "it's just like that. And you just keep going on, and there's no noise, no fuss, nobody knows it happened. They don't know the thing's broken until they go and try to fire it up," he said.
And speaking last week, Col. Johnson revealed that it had been finances, not technology, that had held up development of the laser weapon.
She said: "After several years of seeking stable funding, we are there."