In 1977, George Lucas’s Star Wars popularized the idea of lasers, from individual weapons, the light saber, to those carried aboard X-wing and TIE fighters and the planet-killing Death Star. They were very cool but also a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Well the Star Wars era is here and now. Within a relatively short time, we will see lasers and other types of energy weapons on Navy ships, carried by Army vehicles and possibly even on tactical aircraft. It will be a while longer before there are laser rifles or light sabers, but even these are not entirely beyond the realm of the possible any longer.
Directed energy got a bad rap in the past because of approaches that were too fast, too big and ahead of the basic technologies. Quietly, incrementally and below the radar screen, the Pentagon, but particularly the U.S. Navy, has been working on the relevant technologies and leveraging relatively small and focused R&D efforts across the department. As a consequence, real progress has been made, to the point that directed energy weapons are now plausible candidates for deployment at sea and on land.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR) spent the summer testing its 30KW Laser Weapon System (LaWs) in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Ponce. This wasn’t a science experiment but rather a full operational test not only of the laser system in the field, but of the Navy’s ability to integrate the laser with the rest of the ship systems. By all reports, the exercise was a spectacular success. The system demonstrated the ability to defeat small unmanned aerial vehicles, fast boats and even short-range rockets. When it wasn’t demonstrating its ability for instantaneous engagement, the LaWS was employed as a powerful surveillance system, using low-power laser energy to watch and track multiple air and sea targets. According to the head of ONR, Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, the LaWS has been declared an operational asset and U.S. Central Command has given permission for the commander of the Ponce to defend itself with the weapon.
Lasers are not the only type of directed energy weapon on which the Navy has focused. ONR also has a program focused on an electromagnetic rail gun, an outgrowth of the new aircraft catapult system being installed on the new Ford-class aircraft carrier. With their ability to fire high speed projectiles out to very long ranges, rail guns offer the ability to switch back-and-forth between offensive and defensive actions.
The Navy is not the only service to be looking at directed energy weapons. The Army has tested a 10KW truck mounted laser that successfully shot down UAVs and mortar rounds. A more powerful laser, around 50KW, would be able to shoot down helicopters, rockets and even artillery projectiles.
Directed energy weapons, both lasers and rail guns, have the potential to radically alter the balance between offense and defense on the battlefield. Even low-powered systems such as the LaWS and Tactical High Energy Laser can successfully engage smaller targets. At higher power levels, particularly approaching 1MW, these systems will be able to destroy manned aircraft and high-speed cruise missiles. Directed energy weapons provide near instantaneous engagement out to the full line-of-sight, extremely low cost per shot, the creation of effects, including target destruction, without high explosives and the provision of extremely deep magazines.
The Pentagon is searching for capabilities that will offset the growing threat posed by large numbers of long-range precision weapons and advanced platforms in the hands of capable adversaries. Directed energy weapons have the potential to be that offset.
The requirement for a transformational capability such as a maritime laser weapon is clear. Directed energy weapons are no longer just science experiments. They have been successfully demonstrated and tested repeatedly. It is time to move forward on these weapons systems and to deploy them on existing platforms. Given the Navy’s clear need for directed energy weapons and anticipating continuing progress across all these fronts, the Navy needs to be prepared to transition rapidly to a program of record.
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