The U.S. Navy’s solid-state laser program is heating up. The research effort has resulted in recent successful tests with a Laser Weapon System (LaWS) prototype fired from a U.S. Navy destroyer at sea. The target, an unmanned aerial vehicle, was shot down in flames.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Naval Sea Systems Command recently performed a series of demonstrations of high-energy lasers against surface craft and remotely piloted aircraft aboard an operational Navy combatant. The prototype LaWS was installed aboard the San Diego-based guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG 105) for testing.
LaWS is a technology demonstrator built by the Naval Sea Systems Command using commercial fiber solid state lasers, and employing combination methods developed by the Naval Research Laboratory. The prototype was temporarily fitted on the destroyer’s helicopter deck for the test. The weapon was integrated with the Dewey’s combat management system, and used targeting information from radar tracks obtained from Dewey’s installed MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon system (CIWS), although other sensors and combat direction systems can be used.
The prototype system demonstrated aboard the Dewey will be going on the USS Ponce (AFSB 15) in less than a year, announced Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert.
LaWS will be sent to the Fifth Fleet area of operation in the Arabian Gulf, where it will be mounted on Ponce, the afloat forward staging base, in early in 2014.
The system used its own power generator for the test on Dewey, but eventually the system will draw electricity from the ship’s power system.
“This technology is really important to the fleet,” said Rear Adm. Tom Eccles, chief engineer and deputy commander for naval systems engineering with the Naval Sea Systems Command.
“We can make the cost of delivering fire to an enemy affordable and relieve ourselves of the need to rearm. Having a magazine that is essentially endless because we can generate power as long as we have generators able to be fueled gives us until the end of our fuel supply the ability to generate energetic fires against an enemy, whether it’s defensive or offensive.”
Eccles said the program began with ideas, which turned into laboratory demonstrations, then was into an operationalized concept to shoot down a target in the desert, then onto a more challenging land-based marine environment on an island off California, and finally onto the deck of a ship at sea.
The overall test program has an “excellent 12-for-12 record with a prototype of a future capability,” Eccles said. “We’re taking that capability into the operational domain even further by forward deploying it aboard USS Ponce.”
Effective and Affordable
“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,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder.
“It’s not enough to have a technological advantage,” said Klunder. “It has to be affordable – extremely affordable. When we looked at all those possibilities, it led us right to energy weapons.”
Klunder said the laser has what amounts to an unlimited magazine. “As long as you can make power, you can shoot.”
“Our conservative data tells us a shot of directed energy costs under $1,” Klunder said. “Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability.”
The test aboard Dewey resulted in three targets engaged and destroyed. “We’re three-for-three on very challenging small UAV targets,” according to Klunder. “We’ve never missed. That’s effectiveness, and that’s affordability.”
According to Greenert, speaking at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space expo, LaWS is not a missile defense caliber laser. But, he said, electromagnetic weapons are substantially cheaper than what the Navy is using today. “A 5-inch 54 shell costs about $5,000; a Tomahawk costs about $1.3 million; an SM-6 costs about $5 million; and an SM-3 Block 2B, the ultimate that’s going to do missile defense, right now it costs about $20 million.”
“You need two things to operate a laser: electricity and cooling. We can get the electricity from the ship’s power system and use available chilled water to cool it,” said Peter A. Morrison, program officer for the ONR solid-state laser technology maturation program. “With ample supply of both, we have a virtual bottomless magazine.”
“This new kind of weapon will give our warfighters options like no other system before. I like to use the ‘five Ds’ when describing its myriad of capabilities: deter, disable, damage, defeat and destroy. The solid-state laser can vary the power and accomplish each of these, independently or sequentially,” said Morrison. “The same weapon that can be used to identify and then issue a non-lethal warning to an approaching unmanned air vehicle can then set a drone ablaze and send it crashing to the ground. With lasers, our aim becomes more precise, and we can engage at the speed of light.”