Lasers could be mounted to a ship's close-in weapons systems and operated by fire controlmen. As part of a 2010 test, this laser was fired while being controlled by an MK-15 Phalanx CIWS. (Navy)
Forget the line about “a galaxy far, far away” — “Star Wars” may be coming to your ship sooner than you think.
After years of development and millions of dollars, the Navy plans to field-test a laser cannon on a ship as soon as October, a forward-deployed test that should get the fleet's proverbial FC1 (SW) Skywalkers salivating.
“We're working and the money's in place in [fiscal year] '14, to deploy a laser gun in the Arabian Gulf on the [afloat forward staging base] Ponce,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told Norfolk, Va., sailors at a Jan. 25 all-hands call. “So who knows, petty officers up here could be the ones shooting the laser gun.”
This will be the first laser tested on a deployed ship; designers believe the weapon soon will be potent enough to disable flying drones, speeding boats and incoming missiles. Navy officials hope more advanced lasers will one day be a tactical “game-changer.”
“More powerful shipboard lasers, which could become ready for installation in subsequent years, could provide Navy surface ships with an ability to counter a wider range of surface and air targets at ranges up to about 10 miles,” wrote naval analyst Ronald O'Rourke in a March 14 Congressional Research Service report, issued only weeks before the Navy plans to unveil its laser prototype at the Navy League's annual Sea-Air-Space Expo outside Washington, D.C.
Fair weather weapons
The prototype appears to be a fiber solid-state laser, the type manufacturers commonly use to slice through metal. The Navy version has passed two live-fire exercises. It engaged aerial drones over Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., in 2010 and showed that it could tear through rigid-hull inflatable boats the following year.
Navy officials have said these lasers could be mounted to the close-in weapons system guns used in the fleet — making it likely that fire controlmen will be the fleet's laser gunners. Spokespeople for the Navy commands developing the laser said details about the laser's design and how it will be tested on Ponce will be released in April.
Hoopla aside, lasers have yet to prove their military potential. The Pentagon has spent decades — and billions — designing “Star Wars” lasers that have so far failed to achieve their billing: the capability to reliably shoot down an enemy's nuclear missiles. Last year, the Air Force shelved one of these programs, a laser-equipped jetliner whose beam wasn't powerful enough to intercept ballistic missiles without entering enemy airspace.
What's more, the Navy's weapon must tackle a unique challenge: water.
A laser functions by releasing pulses of light photons, particles that are multiplied and synchronized by a laser to travel in a bright, straight line. But this beam is susceptible to scattering by air particles such as water vapor, smoke, pollution, dust and sand. Water vapor absorbs infrared light and presents challenges for using lasers at sea.
“Lasers might not work well, or at all, in rain or fog,” the CRS report states.
Lasers have other limitations, CRS makes clear: The straight beams can't be fired at targets beyond the horizon, and ballistic missiles could be shielded or set to spin rapidly to defeat weaker beams.
The fleet's current air defenses rely on launching intercept missiles and last-resort weapons, like the Phalanx CIWS. Missiles are expensive and finite. And the Phalanx has a limited range, barrels that can melt from rapid firing and a limited ammo drum that requires sailors topside to reload it. Minutes may be too long when a ship is targeted by dozens, if not hundreds, of missiles.
Enter the laser, a weapon armed with a seemingly limitless magazine. All that's needed is electrical power to fire the laser and cooling systems to keep it from overheating. This type of weapon could be effective against potential adversaries such as China and Iran, which could unleash fusillades of supersonic anti-ship missiles from shore batteries that would leave ships minutes, if not seconds, to counter.
And another upside is price, advocates say. The Navy's most basic shipboard interceptors — Standard Missiles, generally known by their “SM” prefix — cost hundreds of thousands apiece. By contrast, CRS notes each laser blast costs less than a dollar — pennies, some say.
“Equipping Navy surface ships with lasers could lead to changes in naval tactics, ship design, and procurement plans for ship-based weapons,” O'Rourke wrote in the CRS report, calling lasers a “game-changer” equivalent to the advent of ship-fired missiles 60 years ago.