The US Navy wants to field laser weapons on ships in the next few years. But technical obstacles, such as power output and targeting, remain.

USS Ponce in Arabian Gulf

By Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

After decades of research, the widespread operational deployment of laser weapons by the US Navy (USN) may at last be just a few years away. The navy is pursuing a dual-track approach to putting laser weapons and optical-dazzlers into service through the Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) and the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-Dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) programmes. The programmes have differing timelines and focuses.

HELIOS (also known as the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System (SNLWS)) aims to get laser weapons into service in the next few years. The programme took a step forward this month with the award of a development contract worth an initial US$150.02 million to design and supply two test units by 2020, while the project is also supported by the USN’s Rapid Prototyping, Experimentation, and Demonstration (RPED) fund.

The navy requested US$63.3m for HELIOS for FY2018, with US$280m earmarked for the project through FY2022. US defence spending on directed-energy weapons has fluctuated over the decades, reflecting the differing levels of enthusiasm and optimism within the services at various points. Current spending is considerably lower than at the peak of the late 1980s, and the balance of expenditure continues to be weighted in favour of lasers, rather than radio-frequency systems.

HELIOS’s first objective is to field a 60-kilowatt (kw) laser and dazzler designed to destroy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and small boats. The USN wants to deploy that system on board one of the latest Flight IIA versions of the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers as soon as possible. The plan is to take the power of the system up over time to 150–300kw and then 500kw. At the highest power level, this would allow the system to engage subsonic anti-ship missiles.

The USN’s longer-term laser-test project is the SSL-TM, begun by the Office of Naval Research in 2012. The SSL-TM work will combine the results of previous efforts to create a prototype weapon system. In 2015, Northrop Grumman was awarded an initial US$53.15m contract for the three-phase Solid State High Power Laser Weapon System Demonstrator programme. A test firing of a 150kw laser from the USS Portland is planned to take place in 2018, after the vessel commissions.

While in the 1980s the navy looked at very high-power chemical lasers in the megawatt class, the drawbacks of the then-available technology and power-generation requirements have seen it focus more in recent years on far lower power outputs but with more robust technology.

With regard to close-in ship defence, the potential of a ‘deep’ magazine, cheaper operational per-shot costs, near instantaneous time-to-target and variable lethality make lasers an attractive solution. Even with a 300–500kw laser, however, shots are limited to line-of-sight and one target at a time.

Laser beams also lose power as they travel through the atmosphere and this can be exacerbated by humidity. The more traditional issues of missile defence, such as identifying and tracking high-speed targets, may mean that in the near term lasers are not much help against supersonic or hypersonic weapons. More work needs to be done on assessing the time a high-powered laser needs to spend targeted on a missile in order to destroy it, against the time it takes for the missile to reach the ship. When they do start entering service, laser weapons will be used in conjunction with existing high-end air-defence missile systems.

The USN’s first laser-weapon programme was the Mid-InfraRed Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL), built in 1980 by TRW Inc. It is able to reach multi-megawatt power levels and is the ‘highest power chemical laser in the Western Hemisphere’. A 1997 test against a defunct US satellite damaged the laser but did show possible applications for blinding satellites. The USN re-established the Directed Energy Weapons Program Office (PMS-405) in 2004 after recognising the potential of the technology. Northrop Grumman was then chosen to lead the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) project, which sought to test the utility of lasers against small boats. In April 2011, MLD became the first USN laser to be used at sea, when it was tested by a decommissioned Spruance-class destroyer.

The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) programme, led by the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren and Raytheon, aimed to develop a solid-state laser that would be integrated into the Mk 15 Phalanx close-in weapons system. Initial tests in 2009 resulted in the successful tracking, engagement and destruction of five UAVs at China Lake. In 2010, LaWS was tested in an over-the-water scenario against more UAVs, with the aid of a Phalanx’s target-designating systems. The success of these trials saw the modified amphibious transport dock USS Ponce fitted with the system for its deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2014. The AN/SEQ-3, as the laser is now designated, was declared operational at the end of that year, after performing well beyond expectations. It stayed with the Ponce until its decommissioning in October 2017 and is being sent to NSWC Dahlgren to be used as a land testbed.

The wider adoption of laser weapons by the USN for ship self-defence would mark the coming of age of directed-energy weapons as an alternative to kinetic systems, such as missiles, if only for specific roles. These roles will, in the near to medium term, be determined in no small part by the power output of these lasers.

This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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