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ONR Winter to Congress: Navy Making Progress on Developing High-Energy Laser Weapons

Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (ASB(I) 15) conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS). US Navy Photo

Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce (ASB(I) 15) conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS). US Navy Photo

High-energy laser weapons “are moving forward in marked progress,” the director of the Office of Naval Research told the House Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities subcommittee Wednesday.

Rear Adm. Mathias Winter said there is solid cooperation among the services and with the Department of Defense without duplication in work in this arena.

But where needed, as in directed-energy underwater, “there are challenges” unique to the Navy that the service is addressing.

In his opening statement, he said it was “essential to tie the technical to tactical to strategic” in naval research. Using high-energy laser weapons as an example, Winter cited the sea service’s drive to increase power from 30 kilowatts to 150 kilowatts in the weapons being developed for the Navy and the Marine Corps.

The Navy’s and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency work in unmanned underwater and surface maritime vehicles drew the panel’s attention. DARPA Director Arati Prabhakar said the agency was working on the vehicle that would operate in the ocean “without a single sailor aboard.” Winter said earlier in the hearing the Navy would sail its large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicle from San Diego to San Francisco this year.

Stephen Welby, assistant secretary of Defense for research and engineering, defined all those efforts as part of the Pentagon’s “third offset” strategy of maintaining an asymmetric advantage over potential adversaries.

While the third offset strategy is not “a thing,” but “an ambition” as to ways the United States will fight in the future, he said the idea is “how we shift . . . the playing field . . . to where the United States has a dominant, enduring advantage” as it had with tactical nuclear weapons and stealth in the past.

Looking ahead 20 years, Welby said to expect a “fundamental change from baby steps” to new capabilities in unmanned vehicles and their autonomy.

Winter said with regards to autonomy “we are seeing it in its infancy now.” He also looked to “brain-based learning and how we can model that” and cognitive artificial intelligence as within future reach.

Prabhakar predicted “a fundamental shift in how we understand social behavior” and as a result of that how we understand conflict.

In all those areas—including “biology as a technology,” the future of manufacturing or steps to provide endless energy—Welby said that as a department, “we want to be able to surf that wave.”