ABOVE: Beam weapons in the battlespace. Envisioned in this 2008 illustration promoting the Navy’s Maritime Laser Demonstration feasibility project, a carrier task force fights off multiple surface and air threats using laser weaponry. Because its actual infrared beams are invisible to the naked eye, a bit of artistic license is required for dramatic effect. Credit: Northrop Grumman
you’ve got to
get us off
—Adm. Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, February 4th, 2015
Four-star Admiral Greenert, stating the Navy’s foremost priority before a distinguished audience of military, government, academia, and industry representatives in Washington, D.C. at the 2015 Naval Future Force Science and Technology Expo, repeated the enduring reality that, “Probably the biggest vulnerability of a ship is its magazine, because that’s where all the explosives are.”
But the Chief of Naval Operations wasn’t daydreaming about concepts existing only in science fiction. Greenert specifically noted that the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and the Electromagnetic Railgun – weapon programs vital to the future force – are up and running right now.
In a quantum leap from the gunpowder and shot armament of all American warships since the “Old Ironsides,” (the USS Constitution, which was commissioned some 216 years ago), the USS Ponce made U.S. Navy history in late 2014 by being the first warship publicly acknowledged to be deployed in the Persian Gulf with a fully operational, high power, anti-materiel laser as one of its standard weapon systems.
Not coincidentally, the USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15), originally an amphibious assault ship, has emerged from major refitting as an Afloat Forward Staging Base for multiple roles including that of a Special Operations mothership. With highly sophisticated command and control electronics along with a flight deck, enormous well deck for large tactical watercraft, and plenty of room for a lot of special visitors and all their associated gear, the Ponce is well suited for many tasks, including that of hosting the A/N SEQ-3 (XN-1) prototype Laser Weapon System, known as LaWS.
In operational demonstrations tests while underway in September through December 2014, LaWS, a collaborative effort between ONR, NAVSEA, NRL, NSWC Dahlgren Division, and industry partners led by Kratos Defense & Security, detonated small rocket warheads mounted aboard a speeding oncoming small boat, shot a Scan Eagle UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) out of the sky and destroyed other moving targets at sea.
This was not done with impact from solid or explosive-tipped projectiles. It was super heated by concentrated infrared beams from the Ponce’s 30 kW solid state laser traveling at the mind-boggling velocity of 186,000 miles per second – the speed of light. Targets are hit instantaneously, with perfectly straight line-of-sight precision, and taken out within seconds.
Radically departing from aiming limitations of conventional gun systems, there is no need for elevation calculations to compensate for plunging trajectory or even time-of-flight adjustments in leading a target moving at high speed.
While critical details of the system are understandably under wraps, credible open-source information says the weapon itself is based on the output of six off-the-shelf commercial infrared welding lasers that are combined at various power levels and projected with pinpoint accuracy. Beam efficiency is said to be as much as 35% of the juice being supplied to the system from a large, diesel-powered generator below decks.
Range and burn-thru capabilities are classified, but an educated guess of effective engagements at somewhere around 1000 meters against thin-skinned targets can be made from video of testing posted by the U.S. Navy and its industry partners. Pretty good from a 30 kW system and we’re told that new ones that reach and surpass 100 kW are soon to follow.
“Laser weapons are powerful, affordable and play a vital role in the future of naval combat operations,” said Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, Chief of Naval Research in an ONR release. “We ran this particular weapon, a prototype, through some extremely tough paces, and it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality.”
Real life video “game”
In addition to the offensive power, LaWS has proved useful as a surveillance tool due to its powerful optics that can detect objects at “tactically significant ranges” like a shipboard “Hubble Telescope,” Klunder said.
Laser gunners, sitting in climate-controlled comfort inside the ship, use live imagery feeds from a variety of sources for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to positively identify and lock on to potentially threatening targets. These sources include the system’s own high-power optical telescope and the USS Ponce’s cutting-edge radar and sensor arrays integrated with those of the Mk-15 Phalanx CIWS (Close-In Weapon System), the combat-proven 20mm Gatling.
Then, using a handheld controller that almost any avid gamer could instantly adapt to for precision tracking, the system can address various types of threats using a range of escalating options. These run from “warn-away” measures, such as optical “dazzling,” to lethal destruction, if necessary.
No heating humans?
That is not to say “lethal” in the sense of terminating personnel…current Rules of Engagement restrict LaWS to beam-blasting only non-human hostile targets.
Although this politically correct order allows defensive action against threats from drone aircraft and unmanned boats, imagine the legal nightmare it poses for the laser gunner and his entire chain of command in using the system against inbound helicopter gunships or fast attack boats with ship’s crew aboard. Inadvertently igniting the fuel-stained tee shirt of an Iranian “swarm boat” crew could lead to career destruction or even long, hard time in the brig.
While it’s not hard to imagine the scorn that Admiral “Bull” Halsey, that steel-tough icon of WWII, would have for these hindering rules from Pentagon lawyers and political appointees, we’re told not to worry; no such ridiculous restrictions are put on the other weaponry aboard the Ponce.
In a recent interview with the US Naval Institute, Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder assured, “The Captain of that ship has all of the authorities necessary if there was a threat inbound to that ship to protect our sailors and Marines [and] we would defend that ship with that laser system.”
So, use the laser to “light ‘em if ya got ‘em,” but when in doubt blast ‘em out with missiles, cannon or a wall of 20mm slugs at 4500 rpm from the radar/computer aimed CWIS, LaWS’ closely-linked shipmate.
In addition to the potential for removing the catastrophic danger posed by shipboard storage of tons of expensive, powder-propelled and explosive-tipped conventional ammunition, Klunder pointed to the miserly cost of these laser shots, powered and cooled by electric current from an ordinary diesel-fueled generator.
“At less than a dollar per shot, there’s no question about the value LaWS provides,” said Klunder. “With affordability a serious concern for our defense budgets, this will more effectively manage resources to ensure our Sailors and Marines are never in a fair fight.”
Preliminary lessons and cautions
While ONR reports “the system exceeded expectations for both reliability and maintainability,” note that it comes with its own swarm of highly-trained civilian contract engineers and technicians. Keeping this complex weapon system operational in the long run is no small matter.
Also, considering the report that the Ponce’s sailors who “worked daily with LaWS over several months” said it “performed flawlessly, including in adverse weather conditions of high winds, heat and humidity,” (and even in a desert dust storm blown out into the gulf) we join others in awaiting release of verifiable data on a host of challenges.
Some of these questions concern range, time to burn through various target surfaces, speed of power-up, between-shots duration, and performance in heavy fog, torrential rain and snowfall.
Adversaries and Countermeasures
While today’s Pentagon denies America’s sailors the authorization to employ DE weaponry against hostile personnel, you can damn well bet our current and future adversaries are not similarly disarmed. These forces already have lethal laser capabilities and have demonstrated the will to use them against manned and unmanned targets.
Among numerous incidents kept officially under wraps for various reasons, some have managed to get out. Communist China is said to have used a powerful ground-based laser to blind a U.S. reconnaissance satellite in near-earth orbit, and the CIA reports the Soviets used a vehicle-mounted laser weapon in their Afghanistan debacle. Laser damage to eyes is also of great concern, such as that damage reported by an American aviator overflying one of the Kremlin’s spy trawlers.
ONR’s CDEW (Counter Directed Energy Weapons) program is intent on blocking threats such as those from high-power lasers or microwaves, “known and projected.” Countermeasures against frying eyes, internal organs and electronic circuits include a wide range of practical measures from laser-defeating eyewear to protective coatings for ships and aircraft. More spooky things are hinted at, such as what sci-fi buffs would call “force fields.”
While decidedly more tangible than laser beams and microwaves, ONR’s Hypervelocity Projectile is the “directed energy” of a streamlined, super-hardened metal arrow launched at astonishing velocity.
Eliminating the inherent limitations of any kind of explosive propellant in an enclosed chamber attached to a barrel, the HVP railgun system uses electromagnetic levitation, accelerating the projectile down parallel rails from zero to more than 5,000 mph.
While plenty of electrical power is needed for each shot, it has no powder magazine and each shot costs only what it takes to make the slug and generate the electricity. Also, no explosive warhead is needed. It “kills” with devastating efficiency by kinetic energy shock and penetration.
Well along in development, two railgun prototypes from competing contractors are scheduled for a seaborne “shoot out” in 2016.
(Editor’s Note: A follow-on feature by Robert Bruce on ONR’s spectacular railgun program is in the works. Stay tuned.)
Navy sources say that the Ponce’s yearlong LaWS trial is expected to lead to similar deployments on other ships, most notably plans for a 100 to 150 kW version in 2016 or 2017.
An ONR release states, “Data regarding accuracy, lethality and other factors from the Ponce deployment will guide the development of weapons under ONR’s Solid-State Laser-Technology Maturation program. Industry teams have been selected to develop cost-effective, combat-ready laser prototypes that could be installed on vessels such as guided-missile destroyers and the Littoral Combat Ship in the early 2020s.”
And, as might be expected, “The revolutionary technology breakthroughs demonstrated by LaWS will ultimately benefit not only U.S. Navy surface ships, but also airborne and ground-based weapon systems.”
This last includes ONR’s GBAD DE OTM (Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-The-Move) that will protect USMC maneuver elements from hostile drone aircraft armed with recon cameras (and perhaps even weaponized drones).
Additionally, ONR is collaborating with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and counterparts in other U.S. and allied armed forces on a host of directed energy programs. Some prominent examples are DARPA’s Excalibur and HELLADS, the U.S. Army’s HEL MD, the USAF’s Joint High Power Solid State Laser.
Because we know it is inevitable that our current and future adversaries will be fielding the full range of lethal laser weapons from space-based platforms to human-portable devices, it’s an arms race that the free world’s forces can’t afford to lose.
ONR: High Tech for the High Seas
The Office of Naval Research is science on the cutting edge; coordinating, executing and promoting a mind-boggling array of S&T (science and technology) programs for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
Prominent among its many forward-looking components is Department 35, Naval Air Warfare and Weapons, supporting “the Navy’s power projection needs, fostering the technology development of naval aircraft, structures, propulsion, autonomy, energetics, directed energy and electric weapons.”
Our request for additional information on DE and related activities, routed through official channels, was rewarded by this response from Peter Morrison, ONR Program Manager:
“The Office of Naval Research (ONR) funds science and technology efforts which explore the potential of laser weapons in the maritime environment, including the Laser Weapons System (LaWS). Investments in LaWS include upgrading to enable a quick reaction capability to operationally field it for a near term deployment on the USS PONCE, bringing the science fiction futuristic nature of laser weapons into the reality of today’s warfighting needs for countering both small boat and unmanned drone threats.
The lessons learned from this operational deployment on the USS PONCE will help to inform our science and technologies (S&T) investment strategies, and help identify and support critical research areas for solid state lasers (SSL) at still higher power levels. Critical research coming from ONR’s SSL program and other cooperative programs, including the Ground Based Aviation Defense (GBAD) system and those in the Army HEL Mobile Demonstrator, and Air Force S&T efforts – combined with joint investments with the High Energy Laser Joint Technology Office and DARPA, means the services are making informed “Buying Power” decisions and able to leverage each other’s work in new innovative ways, every day.
In addition, ONR works with other services, industry and academia to investigate the S&T that support Counter Directed Energy Weapons capabilities, where lasers and high power radio interference may call for individual warfighter or systems protection. These protections can be as simple as offering upgraded or new protective glasses for lower power lasers and laser pointers to pilots, to far more elaborate and complex improvements in structural or electromagnetic protection methods.”
ONR’s extensive website www.onr.navy.mil has excellent overviews of its many DE (Directed Energy) initiatives with links to programs including High Energy Laser, Solid State Laser Maturation, Solid State Fiber Laser, High Energy Fiber Laser System, Free Electron Laser, Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move, Counter Directed Energy, and Hypervelocity Projectile.
While the layman should be excused for wondering why several of these appear to overlap, we’re assured that their individual missions are both distinct and complement one another.
Don’t miss some particularly interesting tidbits tucked away here and there on both the website (search “Swampworks”) and ONR’s Facebook page.
(Special thanks to David Smalley, a public information and media relations contractor for ONR Corporate Strategic Communications.)
Resources and Videos
Office of Naval Research www.onr.navy.mil
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency www.darpa.mil
Directed Energy Professional Society www.deps.org
BAE Systems www.baesystems.com
General Atomics www.ga.com
Kratos Defense www.kratosdefense.com
Lockheed Martin www.lockheedmartin.com
Northrop Grumman www.northropgrumman.com
A large number of excellent videos are available on YouTube. Search suggestions: “Navy Laser” or “Navy Railgun”