The F-35 could be getting a brand new weapon system if one top-ranking Marine has his way.
Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the commanding general of Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said Tuesday that he could "absolutely" see putting a laser on the service's F-35B variant in the future. The Lockheed Martin joint strike fighters come in three variants: conventional runway versions for the Air Force, vertical takeoff and landing variants for the Marines and aircraft that can takeoff and land on aircraft carriers for the Navy. The Marine version reached initial operating capability last year.
"Because of the size and weight requirements for a laser, we'd probably start off with a KC-130," Walsh said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington. "As soon as we could miniaturize it, we'd put them on F-35s, Cobras [attack helicopters], any of those attack aircraft."
More broadly, Walsh said he expects lasers to play a major role in the service's capabilities, especially given partnerships with the Office of Naval Research aiming to make lasers lighter and more mobile to fit with the Marines' expeditionary mission.
"It's where we want to go," he said. "I think that's the key thing we see is lasers are going to lighten our load in terms of moving away from having to carry a lot of powder kinetic ordnance with us."
The challenge researchers face is making the laser small enough to be useful on the move while also powerful enough to do damage. Walsh said the Marines and Office of Naval Research just successfully tested a 10-kilowatt laser on a vehicle. The next step will be testing a 30-kilowatt laser on a vehicle.
Putting a laser on the Marine Corps' variant of the F-35 may not be an immediate goal, but the program is facing other milestones. Walsh said the Marine Corps will be the first service to deploy the F-35, first on the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp to the Pacific area.
The USS Essex, once it gets the modifications needed to accommodate the F-35, will also deploy with Marine joint strike fighters onboard to the Middle East, Walsh said.