Navy Lasers Moving On Up, Modularity Can Help

The head of the Navy Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren said at a panel during the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium on Wednesday that integrating a laser weapon across a ship is “easier said than done.”

Capt. Godfrey Weekes said a high energy laser weapon is not fully effective unless it is fully integrated across the ship and combat system, but there are numerous hurdles to get past.

Navy Laser Weapon System (LaWS) Photo: Schafer Corp.

Navy Laser Weapon System (LaWS)
Photo: Schafer Corp.

He said that by definition any environment in which the Navy is operating is unforgiving. A precise laser weapon has to deal with sea spray, humidity, waves, and more “so we have to build the systems to survive that.”

Moreover, the ships themselves make this harder because they put out vibrations from the engines, using guns or missiles by definition produce shocks and gases, and electromagnetic systems like radars can add to interference problems.

“Then there’s power,” Weekes said. High energy lasers by definition are only up to 35 percent efficient while creating an energy pulse load when firing, which can cause problems for other ship systems. This requires developing energy strategies and storage solutions.

“You know some of our sister services say, ‘Hey the Navy has it easy when they want to integrate lasers on to a ship.’ They say ‘You have all of that space to bring that capability,” compared to a smaller vehicle like a tank or jet.

He noted, however, that an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has to accommodate 369 sailors to operate systems, eat, work out, do laundry, as well as tons of explosives and fuel. It is not as easy as it first appears to shoehorn capability on to these platforms.

He highlighted modularity can help accommodate a complex, power-straining system like high energy lasers.

“So doing it with modularity and flexibility up front will allow our nation to bring future capabilities to the warfighter much easier.”

Weekes’ boss, Rear Adm. Paul Druggan, Commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, added that “there’s a lot of activity in lasers. And the bottom line is we have now reached the point in laser development, particularly solid state laser development, where we can get military utility out of them.”

This means lasers can have an effect on an adversary at “an operationally important range.”

But Druggan pointed out the developers need to keep in mind it works as a line so know the effects a laser can have on items before and after the optimal range in a laser beam so you do not induce unintended effects.

That, plus the sea environment, “has its own special challenge [for lasers] to be shipboard compatible,” he added.

Druggan said there are different development paths with different timelines for lasers at different power levels.

Weekes said these range from the nonlethal dazzling effect lower power laser weapons to 50-60 kilowatt (KW) lasers and up to a 150-KW laser being worked on by the Office of Naval Research (ONR).

He underscored that the laser weapon has been designated a rapid prototype and demonstration (RPED) program. This allows it to move on a faster acquisition timeframe than other programs.

This is in addition to an ONR program to add the follow-up to the 30-KW Laser Weapons System (LaWS) technology demonstrator tested on the USS Ponce for three years.

Earlier at the symposium the Navy announced the next-generation follow-on to the LaWS will be added to the USS Portland (LPD-27 San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock (Defense Daily, Jan. 10, 2017).

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