Lasers powerful enough for use in war were once a fantastical weapons technology reserved for the sinister and unrealistically complex plots of James Bond villains.
In reality, the U.S. military has been investigating and investing in solid-state lasers and other directed energy weapons for half a century. All that work has finally paid off, as the Navy is set to deploy the first laser small enough to fit on a ship and powerful enough to destroy an aircraft.
Navy officials see lasers and other directed energy weapons, like the forthcoming magnetic rail gun, as the next in a long line of technologies that have fundamentally changed the way wars are fought.
In the span of an hour-long panel at the Navy League’s Sea-Air -Space exposition at National Harbor, Md., the introduction of energy weapons was compared to that of guided missiles, aircraft carriers and GPS. In a statement from the Navy, one official took the comparisons a step further, suggesting energy weapons will have the same impact “as gunpowder did in the era of knives and swords.”
“I think that directed energy weapons are going to change the way we think about projecting naval power,” said Rear Adm. William E. Leigher, director of warfare integration for information dominance.
Maj. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said he was excited about the implications of technologies like the rail gun for the future of expeditionary warfare.
“Look back at the tank, the aircraft carrier, precision munitions or GPS-guided weapons. Is this the next capability out there?” he asked.
The Navy’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget requests $40.4 million for research and development of directed energy technologies.
Navy leaders announced plans in April to deploy a solid-state laser aboard the USS Ponce in 2014, two years ahead of schedule. The Ponce is the Navy’s first afloat forward staging base, anchored in the Persian Gulf to support special operations, mine sweeping and humanitarian relief missions in the region.
The Office of Naval Research and Naval Sea Systems Command recently demonstrated that the laser weapons system, or LaWS, could target, shoot and destroy an unmanned aerial vehicle from the deck of a moving ship.
“Our directed energy initiatives, and specifically the solid-state laser, are among our highest priority science and technology programs. The solid-state laser program is central to our commitment to quickly deliver advanced capabilities to forward-deployed forces,” Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder said in a statement announcing the successful demonstration. “This capability provides a tremendously affordable answer to the costly problem of defending against asymmetric threats, and that kind of innovative approach is crucial in a fiscally constrained environment.”
LaWS is one of several energy weapons under development. Many of them are either in or about to begin field trials. LaWS and the maritime laser demonstrator — another solid-state laser that is a derivative of a 100 kilowatt beam developed by Northrop Grumman Corp. — are on the verge of becoming programs of record, Francis Corbett, an industry analyst and information, surveillance and reconnaissance consultant, said at the conference.
Likewise the Army is developing a land-based system called the high-energy laser technology demonstrator that has proven the concept can work for ground troops as well. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on a parallel effort to ramp up the power of directed beam lasers to 150 kilowatts. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. is scheduled to demonstrate the offensive capabilities of that system soon, Corbett said.
Lasers run on electricity, so as long as there is power available, they never run out of ammunition, which is a distinct advantage over conventional projectile weapons. They require neither propellant nor explosives to operate, which removes those potentially hazardous materials from the equation. Rather than displace conventional weapons like machine guns and missiles, lasers will be used in concert with them to provide layered ship defenses, according to ONR.
At a mere $1 per shot, LaWS is dramatically cheaper to fire than, say, a missile that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit, Klunder said. At that price, it is cheaper to shoot than even conventional projectile ammunition.
Walsh was cautious about declaring a specific use for energy weapons, but said the implications for expeditionary warfare were potentially huge. Marines at Quantico’s Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory are considering deploying them to counter small UAVs, mortar fire, rockets and artillery, Walsh said. The magnetic rail gun would greatly extend the range of fire support under which Marines could advance inland, he said. The rail gun can reach out 100 miles from a ship at sea.
“Any time we can extend the range [of naval surface fire] and do it cheaper than with missiles, that’s the way to go,” he said.
Though recent demonstrations and technological breakthroughs are encouraging, none of the directed energy technologies have been perfected, said Robin White, director of surface ship design and systems engineering at Naval Sea Systems Command. There are issues with cooling on both the rail gun and laser systems aboard ship.
Still, NAVSEA has tested and confirmed that there are versions of both weapons that will fit aboard and are “feasible” for use on both the Littoral Combat Ship and the Navy’s DDG-51 and DDG-1000 destroyers. Issues also remain with combat systems integration and battery storage and charging with both systems, she said. Lasers also have a fairly constricted window of conditions in which they perform optimally. Their effectiveness suffers in adverse weather like fog, rain and in cloudy conditions.
For Marines going ashore, the systems are not small enough to be maneuverable, Walsh said.
“Certainly there are benefits to expeditionary warfare, if we can get the size down,” he said. “That’s the key piece for industry.”
With new weapons come concerns also about how they are used. Revolutionary weapons almost always meet resistance both from adherents to the status quo and because of their increased or innovative lethality. For instance, when firing laser weapons system at an airborne target, collateral damage is a concern, said Leigher. Unlike bullets or missiles that have a finite range and will eventually fall from the sky, a laser that misses its target will shine on in a straight line until it is turned off. That poses a risk to high-altitude civilian aircraft.
“We have to get [these weapons] into exercises and experiments” to figure out how they should be used, Leigher said.