The Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) 150 kW follow-on to the Laser Weapons System (LaWS) will be moved to the USS Portland (LPD-27) later this year, according to a Navy official.

An ONR official told Defense Daily on Thursday at the Department of Defense’s DoD Lab Day that once the new system, named the Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM), finishes integration, it will be taken to a land-based test site to better examine its capabilities.

Rendering of the 150 kW Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) demonstrator weapon firing from the USS Portland (LPD-27). (Image: Office of Naval Research).
Rendering of the 150 kW Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) demonstrator weapon firing from the USS Portland (LPD-27). (Image: Office of Naval Research).

“You can only do so much in a factory-setting. So we’ll spend a little time on a land-based range and then assuming that it does everything we want it to do. We’ll move it to the Portland sometime later this year,” Frank Peterkin, senior technologist for directed energy at ONR, told Defense Daily.

Peterkin explained once the SSL-TM is installed, it will be placed over a support structure on the forward part of the Portland. The beam director will be placed over a structure where the lasers are housed.

“Below deck, there’s a stack of several sections of electrical equipment, there’s an energy storage magazine, and there’s a thermal storage magazine. Those are basically buffering systems so that the ship’s power and cooling does not drive the lasers directly.”

However, even though they are electrically driven, the lasers will not be available for infinite shots with zero delay. “There will be some duty cycle where it can fire and then it’s going to have to stop while these things recharge, effectively, and then it can fire again,” Peterkin continued.

The previous 30kW LaWS system was installed on the USS Ponce Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) (AFSB(I)) for three years and tested against UAVs and small boats  (Defense Daily, March 29, 2017).

Peterkin said the SSL-TM will be doing similar mission sets but “much, much better.” He said a reasonable, if not fully accurate, explanation of the SSL-TM capabilities over LaWS is its power. Comparing the 150 kW SSL-TM to 30 kW LaWS means “a good rule of thumb is, if it’s roughly a same target at roughly the same range, we’re going to get it five times faster.”

He explained the lasers can substitute for a high-value missile to defeat a low-cost asymmetric threat. Then, “the faster we can kill those, the more useful that laser will be on that ship.”

Since SSL-TM uses an electric magazine, it has a deep magazine. As long as the Navy is driving the ship, the laser can fire. “So that magazine, that precision, is really the complementary piece to what you get with the kinetics,” Peterkin said.

While Peterkin emphasized the importance of the faster kill speed, he said the weapon will also have more than double the range.

“There’s some subtleties to how that gets accomplished. One increase in range is because of the power, the other increase is because the beam control architecture that we’re using here is different than what was done with LaWS, and so the combination of those 2 factors – it will be a significant enhancement of the range and the speed of kill, or both.”

Peterkin highlighted ONR is not looking to replace kinetic weapons any of the current laser weapons the Navy is installing on ships, only to complement that. The Navy is only installing the laser weapons in a way that does not displace other weapons on the ships.

“We’re putting them in locations that don’t have a current weapon, so we only add to the ship, we don’t displace, and we do not want to sort of set this up as a competition between lasers and missiles because in the near-term that’s not valuable.”

The Navy announced the Portland would get this follow-on to LaWS early last year. Capt. Brian Metcalf, program manager for the LPD-17 and LX(R) class ships, said what is now called SSL-TM could arrive on the Portland as soon as the fall of 2018, although the system has not moved that quickly.

Metcalf also said the laser system will fit into what was originally the Vertical Launch System reservation on the ship. At the time, Metcalf said he did not know how long the SSL-TM will be fielded on Portland, but noted nobody knew how long LaWS would serve on Ponce and is not planning to take it off (Defense Daily, Jan. 10, 2018).

Peterkin admitted even though the Navy is not replacing kinetic weapons with lasers any time soon, over the longer term “we’ll see whether there’s a trade to be made there, but in the near term they’re just complementary.”

Separately, the Navy is working to install the Lockheed Martin [LMT] High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) directed energy system on a DDG-51 Flight IIA destroyer by FY 2021 (Defense Daily, March 20).