The US Navy is accelerating efforts to incinerate drones, cruise missiles, aircraft, ships and other enemy targets with laser weapons fired from destroyers, cruisers and maybe even aircraft carriers.
While ship fired laser weapons have been in development for a while now, the effort is gaining momentum and focus as it appears to be nearer term than was previously thought possible. Advances in integrated mobile electrical power sources and higher-kilowatt laser weapons have sped up the developmental progress, bringing the raster prospect of high-heat, precision laser weapons to surface combatants.
Speaking recently at the Directed Energy Summit, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson spoke passionately about the developmental acceleration of ship-fired weapons.
“I've had the opportunity to travel around the directed energy technology corridor, and from what I've seen, I'm very hopeful. It is clear to me that if we can do this right it will be transformational," Richardson said. "So the Navy's all in, we're pushing this forward. We're committed to moving forward as fast as we can.
The Office of Naval Research has spent time working with Northrop Grumman to develop a Laser Weapon System Demonstrator through three phases; the phases include an initial design phase, ground-testing phase and then weapons testing at sea aboard a Navy Self Defense test ship, a Northrop statement said.
“The company will design, produce, integrate, and support the shipboard testing of a 150-kilowatt-class solid state (electric) laser weapon system,” the Northrop statement added.
Office of Naval Research officials told Scout Warrior an aim of the developmental program is to engineer a prototype weapons for further analysis.
"This system employs multi-spectral target detection and track capabilities as well as an advanced off-axis beam director with improved fiber laser technologies to provide extended target engagement ranges. Improvements of high power fiber lasers used to form the laser beam enable the increased power levels and extended range capabilities. Lessons learned, operating procedures, updated hardware and software derived from previous systems will be incorporated in this demonstration," a senior official with the Office of Naval Research, told Scout Warrior in a written statement a few months ago.
“The possibilities can become integrated prototypes -- and the prototypes become reality when they become acquisition programs,” an ONR official said.
It is not yet clear when this weapon might be operational but the intention seems to be to arm surface ships such as destroyers, cruisers and possibly even carriers or an LCS with inexpensive offensive or defensive laser weapons technology.
Both Navy and Northrop Grumman officials often talk about the cost advantages of firing laser weapons to incinerate incoming enemy attacks or destroy enemy targets without having to expend an interceptor missile worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Navy officials describe this as getting ahead of the cost curve.
"For about the price of a gallon of diesel fuel per shot, we're offering the Navy a high-precision defensive approach that will protect not only its sailors, but also its wallet," said Guy Renard, director and program manager, directed energy, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
Meanwhile, the Navy has already deployed one laser system, called the Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, which has been operational for months.
LaWS uses heat energy from lasers to disable or destroy targets fast, slow, stationary and moving targets. The system has successfully incinerated UAVs and other targets in tests shots, and has been operational aboard an amphibious transport dock in the Persian Gulf, the USS Ponce.
The scalable weapon is designed to destroy threats for about $59-cents per shot, an amount that is exponentially lower that the hundreds of thousands or millions needed to fire an interceptor missile such as the Standard Missile-2, Navy officials explained.
While at sea, sailors have been using the LaWS for targeting and training exercises every day and the weapon has even been used to disable and destroy some targets, service officials said.
Navy sailors and engineers have discovered some unanticipated intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance value from the laser weapons system by using its long-range telescope to scan for targets as well, Navy officials said.
Laser weapons are expected to figure prominently in the Navy's future plans in several respects. New Navy platforms such as the high-tech destroyer, the DDG 1000 or USS Zumwalt, is engineered with an electric drive propulsion system and extra on-board electrical power called an Integraed Power System. This system is in part designed to power-up ship electrical systems and accommodate emerging future weapons systems such as lasers and rail guns.
"Laser weapons provide deep magazines, low cost per shot, and precision engagement capabilities with variable effects that range from dazzling to structural defeat against asymmetric threats that are facing the US Naval force," Beutner added.
In addition, laser weapons integrate fully into the Navy's emerging "distributed lethality" strategy aimed at better arming the surface fleet with a wide array of offensive and defensive weapons.