Navy Working on ‘Sci-Fi’ Weapons

By Jon Harper
The Navy’s research-and-development dollars are going toward systems that will help the service stay ahead of advanced weaponry being developed by China and other potential adversaries. R&D priorities include: unmanned underwater vehicles, directed energy weapons, hypervelocity projectiles, anti-ship missiles and aircraft carrier-based drones.

Other nations and non-state actors are pursuing so-called “anti-access/area denial” or “A2/AD” capabilities that could limit or inhibit the Navy’s freedom of movement. As anti-ship weapons improve, U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the survivability of surface platforms.

Bryan Clark, a naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said those worries are well founded.

“The A2/AD threat just continues to proliferate and it’s likely we’ll see it in more and more places around world, which makes it more difficult to do things above the water,” he said. The Navy will “rely on undersea capabilities to a greater extent” in the future.

Clark said undersea drones offer several advantages over manned submarines: they are smaller and less detectable, they don’t put sailors at risk and they are less expensive. Advancements in technology are making UUVs viable platforms for a variety of missions.

“The UUVs of today have much greater endurance than their predecessors and then the next generation of them will have even greater endurance,” Clark said. “The sonars, the electromagnetic sensors, the weapons … are shrinking, so the miniaturization of those systems has made it possible to put things onto UUVs that previously would have been too big and heavy to put on anything but a submarine.”

A top undersea drone project that the Navy is working on now is the large-displacement unmanned undersea vehicle (LDUUV). A solicitation sent out to industry indicated that the Navy wants “a modular, open architecture, reconfigurable UUV” delivered in increments. Increment I mission capabilities would include underwater ISR and the capacity for launch and recovery by littoral combat ships, Virginia-class submarines and modernized dry deck shelters. Future increments could provide above-water ISR, counter-mine activities and payload deployment.

The service has been circulating a draft request for proposals to industry.

An open ocean demonstration of a LDUUV prototype is slated for next year, said Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the chief of naval research. The vehicle is expected to travel from San Francisco to San Diego using algorithms and sense-and-avoid technology to navigate, he said.

The Navy has big plans for UUVs as it looks over the horizon.

“We are just scratching the surface in some of the capabilities,” Winter said in August at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

The Navy wants to build “thousands of miles of [undersea] logistical networks to allow large-scale deployment of UUVs, allowing them to communicate, engage, resupply … [and] do their mission,” he said.

At an industry conference in London in September, Winter said Navy researchers are working on advanced materials and storage devices that would allow the service to operate undersea vehicles for “decades.”

To “bend the cost curve” of warfare, the Navy is developing directed energy weapons to defend against enemy missiles, aircraft and small boats like the one that attacked the USS Cole destroyer in 2000 and killed 17 sailors.

The most prominent of these “sci-fi” capabilities is solid state lasers. Lasers could theoretically be fired indefinitely — as long as the ship can generate enough power — at an estimated cost of just $1 or less per shot.

Last year a 30-kilowatt laser weapon system (LaWS) was installed on the USS Ponce afloat forward staging base, which has been operating in the Persian Gulf. The Navy is using it to demonstrate the technology, with hopes of developing more powerful lasers.

“What we really need to do is get to … larger scale systems for greater lethality,” said Sean Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, at a Navy League breakfast in September. “We’re continuing to develop the fundamental technologies that will allow us to scale that up.”

At a directed energy conference in July, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said he expected the service to have a 150-kilowatt laser available for testing by 2018.

Ronald O’Rourke, a naval analyst with the Congressional Research Service, said in a September CRS report — titled, “Navy Lasers, Railgun and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress” — that the Navy would need lasers with beam powers of at least several hundred kilowatts to effectively counter anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.

When it comes to bending the cost curve, the Navy also has high hopes for hypervelocity projectiles (HVPs), which could use the kinetic energy generated by their high speed to quickly destroy or disable enemy targets such as incoming missiles or forces ashore. The electromagnetic railgun, which uses electrical currents to fire projectiles at hypersonic speeds of Mach 6 or higher, is seen as a promising launch system for HVPs.

General Atomics and BAE Systems have developed prototypes for the Navy.

“We’re investing heavily in railguns across the [future years defense plan],” Stackley said. The Navy plans to demonstrate the weapon at sea on a joint high speed vessel next year.

Like solid state lasers, the railgun presents challenges in terms of scale, Stackley said. But he noted that there are also other technological hurdles: “It’s everything from barrel wear to projectile to guidance and control.”

Officials and analysts have said that these weapons, like lasers, have the potential to dramatically improve depth of magazine and “cost exchange ratios” relative to missile systems currently on board Navy ships.

Railgun projectiles are small enough to be stored by the hundreds in magazines, CRS said in its report. The weapons would also be relatively inexpensive.

The HVPs are estimated to cost about $25,000 each. In comparison, standard missiles can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

“Against a country such as China that has many UAVs and anti-ship missiles and a capacity for building or acquiring many more, an unfavorable cost exchange ratio [resulting from the use of conventional air defense missiles] can become a very expensive — and potentially unaffordable — approach to defending Navy surface ships … particularly in a context of constraints on U.S. defense spending and competing demands for finite U.S. defense funds,” the CRS report said.

Stackley said more work needs to be done before the railgun is able to achieve the capabilities the Navy desires.

“We’re working very closely with [the office of the secretary of defense] in terms of developing the technologies, the capability to get it from, frankly, the lab to a weapon system. And that’s not a short step,” he said.

The CRS report said integrating lasers and railguns into the fleet could create a “revolution” in naval operations: “Any one of these new weapon technologies, if successfully developed and deployed, might be regarded as a ‘game changer’ for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles.”

But the Navy isn’t just looking for defensive weapons to protect the fleet. The service also hopes to acquire a new offensive punch that could take out enemy surface vessels before or shortly after they start launching attacks against U.S. ships. That is why it is pursuing a new anti-ship missile.

“It’s intended to address the fact that China has … anti-ship cruise missiles that can out range the Navy’s current cruise missiles,” Clark said. “It puts them at a range disadvantage when they come up against Chinese navy ships.”

U.S. officials want to deploy a new “offensive anti-surface warfare” (OASuW) weapon by the middle of the next decade. As a stopgap, the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are working with Lockheed Martin to develop a long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM), which for now is an air-launched weapon.

“That’s [U.S. Pacific Command’s] urgent operational need,” said Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, former deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems who is now the commander of the Asia-Pacific-based 7th Fleet.

Stackley said LRASM is going through test phases for “accelerated” introduction to the fleet. Aucoin said the Navy would “compete broadly” when selecting a vendor for the follow-on system.

In the meantime, the Navy is considering upgrading the Tomahawk land-attack missile and giving it anti-ship capabilities.

“What I would like to see happen is take those capabilities that we need and start inserting those into a Block 4 [Tomahawk] and see what we have with LRASM Increment I,” he said at CSIS. “If we can incrementally put in some of these things it will make it easier to transition to this new [OASuW] weapon.”

“Will it [OASuW] be in a Tomahawk airframe or some other airframe? Don’t know. But we want to have that competition because we know the threat is increasing out there and we need good capability [for] the mid ‘20s and beyond. And that’s what we’re studying in the analysis of alternatives,” he added.

In the air, Navy officials see drones as a key element of future warfare and a potential solution to emerging anti-access/area denial threats.

“Unmanned systems … lessen the risk to our sailors and Marines and allow us to conduct missions that are longer, go farther, and take us beyond the limit of pilots and crews,” Mabus wrote in an op-ed piece last year.

For these reasons, the Navy wants to build an unmanned carrier-launch airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft. The Navy has already developed and tested a X-47B carrier drone prototype. But the UCLASS project has been stalled due to uncertainty surrounding capability requirements. Some within the Defense Department see the UAV as primarily an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. Others, including prominent lawmakers on the congressional Armed Services Committees, have envisioned a deep-strike aircraft with stealthy characteristics and a sizeable payload capacity.

“This program is in acquisition hell right now,” Stackley said. “It has been inside the building for three years just trying to get out to see the light of day. We’ll debate on it some more this fall with OSD and determine whether or not we’ve got the right program.”

The mission requirements, once they are decided, will dictate what kind of capabilities need to be built into the UCLASS from the very beginning, Stackley said.

“That’s a fundamental decision that has to be made in terms of what the mission and operation is going to be that characterizes that platform over its life … and therefore what do you have to design in day one that you’re not going to be able to upgrade later?” he said.

Clark believes the long-range strike advocates will win out.

“The aircraft carrier being a mobile air base would be great in some of these situations where you’ve got these A2/AD threats,” Clark said. “But if it doesn’t have airplanes that can go more than 4[00] or 500 miles away, then you’re really limiting its ability to impact a war fight that’s happening a long ways away because the carrier is not necessarily survivable closer in. So you need to have airplanes that have much longer ranges.”

He said giving the UCLASS a significant attack capability would enable it to kill what it finds, unlike a lightly armed ISR platform.

“I think it’s likely that OSD is going to revise the requirements to ensure that it has got sufficient payload and survivability to do these kinds of long-range strike missions,” he added.

Stackley said feedback from industry will “help inform” program objective memorandum discussions slated for this fall as the Defense Department prepares its fiscal year 2017 budget request.

Once the requirements are settled on and the program moves forward, Stackley estimated it would likely be five to 10 years before the UCLASS is operational. Navy officials want to get the system out to the fleet as quickly as possible.

 “The Navy views this as a critical program, and we’ve got to leverage what unmanned [capability] offers to our air wing sooner rather than later,” Stackley said.

Topics: Armaments, Advanced Weapons, Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology

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