The US Navy still has a big dream: to arm its warships with laser weapons. But will it really happen one day? The Navy has been working for more than a decade on various efforts to equip warships with laser weapons that can confuse or destroy enemy systems. And while the service still doesn’t have a show-ready ship laser, it is still investing heavily in technology, with millions slated for several prototypes and developmental weapons over the coming year.
The Navy’s fiscal year 2023 budget request requests more than $103 million to support half a dozen laser weapon concepts, according to budget justification documents. This year, the service plans to mount a laser glare system on a missile destroyer for testing purposes and lay the groundwork for experiments with another laser system designed to take out an anti-ship cruise missile. For vessels carrying a limited number of missiles and cartridges, the notion of an effective ranged weapon that won’t run out of ammo is appealing. But critics wonder if the ship laser concept will ever live up to its promise.
“Skeptics sometimes note that proponents of high-energy military lasers over the years have made numerous predictions about when the lasers might enter service with the DOD, and that these predictions have repeatedly failed to come true” , a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published in the April statements. “Seeing this record of unfulfilled predictions, skeptics have sometimes said, half-jokingly, that ‘lasers are X years in the future – and always will be’.”
Developments that are expected to take place over the next 12 months could give a better glimpse of what the future really holds for the concept.
look at the sun
The first development to watch is the installation of the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical Glare and Surveillance, or HELIOS, on the destroyer USS Preble in San Diego, which is taking place now and expected to be completed before the end of the year. HELIOS, according to manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., is a high-energy laser that can also act as a dazzler to take out enemy drones and as a tool to support long-range intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
“The HELIOS system’s deep store, low cost per kill, speed of light delivery and precision response allow it to meet today’s fleet needs and its mature and scalable architecture supports laser power levels increased to counter additional threats in the future”, Lockheed States in the program material.
The company was first contracted in 2018 to begin construction of HELIOS. Seapower magazine reported that the Navy believes it can run the system consistently at 60 kilowatts, but scale it up to 120 kW with a few adjustments.
After installation of HELIOS is complete, the Navy wants to conduct at-sea testing of the system in fiscal year 2023, according to budget documents. The approximately $19 million requested for this effort would also pay for engineering, maintenance and repairs, and modifications based on the results of sea trials.
HELIOS is similar in concept to one of the Navy’s first ship-based laser efforts. In 2014, the service grew a counter-drone weapon called the Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, on the Afloat Forward Staging Base Ponce, a former amphibious ship, in the Persian Gulf. When Ponce was decommissioned in 2017, LaWS was brought ashore. According to the CRS briefing, it will be used as a ground test tool for HELIOS development as that program moves forward.
A hurdle for HELIOS may be the cost of the system: Navy CRS sites estimate $100 million per unit for early development. The cost of using the system is said to be negligible – a few dollars per shot – but it’s still unclear if the weapon as a whole is a good deal for the Navy.
“As the Navy continues to mature laser weapon systems and analyze their integration into the overall combat system, cost-per-kill metrics will be refined to specify an adequate return on investment,” CRS wrote in its report. “Given the current uncertainty of the relative contributions of the different systems assessed and the sensitivity to doctrinal implementation and logistical assumptions, it is too early to assign a meaningful value that can be assigned solely to the systems implementation of laser weapons.”
Laser weapons against missiles
Two other laser weapons in development are the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, or ODIN, and the High Energy Laser Counter-[Anti-Ship Cruise Missile] Program, or HELCAP.
ODIN was spotted quietly installed for testing aboard the USS Stockdale destroyer in 2021. The Navy wants $25 million for system testing and development in fiscal year 2023, up from $9 million this year. These funds will ensure onboard support and maturation efforts. The Navy said it plans to install the systems aboard eight destroyers in all, with this installation effort would have should be finished next year.
Intended to confuse enemy drones and other detection systems, ODIN was designed and built by the Navy from the ground up. It is unclear to what extent the service plans to use the system within its destroyer fleet once the weapon is operational.
The last of the trio of laser weapons, HELCAP, is the most powerful of the three, with at least 300kW to defeat incoming anti-ship cruise missiles. The documentation also suggests that it faces the most technological and development challenges. The Navy wants about $7 million for HELCAP in fiscal year 2023, up from $25 million this year. It is pushing plans for experimentation until at least 2024 due to “technology maturation” challenges, according to documents.
According to the published documents, among these challenges are high atmospheric turbulence, target tracking accuracy and “jitter control”.
The next key steps for HELCAP are expected to take place at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, Maryland, which is responsible for designing and building auxiliary power and cooling systems.
“Fiscal Year 23 activities will culminate with this demonstration and preparation for targeting and tracking the limited maritime experiments planned for FY24,” the Navy budget request states.
The Navy is also experimenting with ground-based laser weapons. In a test earlier this year, a system called Lockheed Martin’s Layered Laser Defense (LLD) shot down a target drone which was supposed to simulate a subsonic cruise missile.
“Innovative laser systems … have the potential to redefine the future of naval combat operations,” Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Lorin C. Selby said at the time. “They present transformative capabilities to the fleet.”
Ultimately, the Navy envisions these onboard systems working together as a family of laser weapons that can provide effective revolving defense for surface ships at a fraction of the cost per kill of conventional weapons. However, it is still unclear when this vision will become reality. But as testing and installation progresses with specific, finished goals, the integration of lasers into naval warfare is closer to reality than it has ever been.
Hope Hodge Seck is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has covered military issues since 2009. She is the former editor of Military.com.