This post has been updated to include additional comments from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus and NAVSEA chief engineer Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller.
The Navy has already seen potential adversaries using directed energy against the fleet and therefore needs to push forward with its DE weapons development faster than the acquisition system has previously allowed, the Navy secretary said.
Speaking today at the Directed Energy Summit, hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Booz Allen Hamilton, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made clear his service is not the only one pursuing directed energy weapons.
“Just two weeks ago, USS Forrest Sherman (DDG-98) and her attached helicopter were repeatedly targeted by a laser from an Iranian-flagged merchant vessel, and last week 11 commercial airliners were targeted by lasers in the vicinity of a New Jersey airport,” he said in his prepared remarks.
“These are examples of how the world is getting faster and is changing exponentially—the world that is with, too often, the exception of the United States military.”
Mabus said during a question and answer session that given the advantages of directed energy, he’d expect that a lot of countries are working on DE weapons for offensive and defensive purposes. To avoid falling behind, Mabus urged quicker progress. He noted that the Navy built its first megawatt high energy laser – the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) – in the 1980s, but it took until 2012 to put a prototype laser on the flight deck of USS Dewey (DDG-105) and until 2014 to deploy the weapon for operational tests overseas on the interim Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf.
To do better now, “I think the main thing is to have a focus on this as a cohesive whole instead of a program here, a program there, stovepiped, one for surface, one for air, one for lasers, one for railguns, one for this, one for that.” Instead, he said, the Navy needs one group in charge of all DE to understand how each project fits in with the Navy’s overall needs.
To that end, Mabus said he would release a DE roadmap this fall that “charts our course for research, development, and fielding of high power radio frequency weapons, lasers, and directed energy countermeasures. And I will follow it up with my guidance to the Program Objective Memorandum for [Fiscal Year 2018], which, importantly, establishes a resource sponsor and a program of record.”
He said later that the roadmap would include DE investments for all domains – surface ships, aircraft, ground-based assets and more.
“This defined pursuit of directed energy technologies will broaden the range of tactical options for warfighters, reduce costs, decrease response times, and can create breakthroughs with commercial, non-military application for Americans in industries ranging from construction to medicine,” he said in his prepared remarks, adding as an example that if power storage for energy weapons – large batteries, essentially – could be applied to the commercial world, the Navy could see a great drop in cost.
Also meant to help quicken the pace of progress, the Office of Naval Research will take lessons learned from the Ponce to inform the Solid State Laser Technology Maturation program that aims to produce a 100-150 kilowatt laser prototype for at-sea testing in 2018, or sooner if possible. Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) chief engineer, said at the event that everything the Navy learned about rules of engagement and how to use LaWS in an operational environment would apply to larger laser weapons as well. Leveraging the operational knowledge Ponce gained will help the Navy field whatever comes out of the SSL-TM effort much more rapidly.
In the mean time, Mabus said the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) will continue its work in the Middle East after early success led officials to extend its deployment.
“The variable intensity of directed energy gives commanders the power to choose whether to deter, disable, or destroy all with one system,” Mabus said.
“The cost of a single laser ‘shot’ from our Laser Weapons System is less than one dollar, compared to hundreds of thousands, and in some cases, millions of dollars for current self-defense payloads.”
Beyond just the cost, LaWS has proven itself simpler to use for sailors trying to navigate the hectic Straits of Hormuz.
“Not only has that laser proven its ability to withstand the intense heat in the region and the maritime environment, it has proven its ability to defeat small boats and airborne targets. It only takes one sailor to operate and can also be used as a telescope,” he said.