Navy, MDA Experimenting With Laser Prototypes For Surface Warfare, Ballistic Missile Defense

March 29, 2017 7:52 PM
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

The Navy and Missile Defense Agency are leveraging prototyping programs to incrementally pursue complex ideas such as a laser weapon integrated into the Aegis Combat System and a high-power laser for boost-phase kill in missile defense, officials said today at the 2017 Directed Energy Summit.

This ability to learn through prototypes and experiments has always been resident in the MDA but is new for the Navy. The Navy recently created a Surface Navy Laser Weapon System program as its very first Rapid Prototyping, Experimentation and Demonstration (RPED) project, which allows the service to put new technologies in the field, learn lessons early to reduce risk, and decide whether and how to proceed before spending too much money, Rear Adm. Mike Manazir, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems (OPNAV N9), said at the summit, cohosted by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Normally, reducing risk involves awarding a contract to “a traditional provider of defense systems” and spending a lot of time and money on development. With RPED, Manazir said the Navy is pursuing multiple lines of effort under the umbrella of the Surface Navy Laser Weapons System program: researchers are looking at improving the laser itself through increased power, increased beam quality and the ability to “modularize,” and at the same time learning how to integrate laser weapons available today into the Aegis Combat Systems.

“The thing I’m interested in is the ability to use our folks to figure out how to integrate this stuff into our current weapons systems,” Manazir said.
“There are systems out there right now at various power levels that are just stand-alone. We know that. What we’d like to do is be able to integrate it so that when you have an effect in competition, in war, in a maritime environment, you know how to put those together with the kinetic systems we already have in the field.”

“In this increasing world of digitization, and information’s the coin of the realm, moving data around the battlespace is going to be the way you beat the other guy. You’re going to have to be able to use non-kinetic weapons, you’re going to have to be able to use the information space, to overwhelm the adversary. But you’re also going to have to use kinetic weapons,” he continued.
“And so we do want to reduce the cost-curve, we do know that a deep energy magazine where you have constant shots of directed energy can take the place of multimillion dollar missiles. … There’s a place for both (kinetic and energy weapons), and you’ve got to figure out how to put them together.”

As the Navy expands its use of its new prototyping and rapid acquisition authorities, opportunities to work with MDA – which was established with special authorities to rapidly field new capabilities – on areas of common interest. For example, Manazir said during the event that “I’m enthusiastic about the ideas that are out there about how you take a package and scale it in order to fit into any application, whether it’s seaborne, truck-borne or airborne.” MDA Deputy Director Rear Adm. Jon Hill agrees.

“For cutting-edge technologies, like [directed energy], we can synergize on resolving specific risk areas by collaborating on prototyping efforts. For areas of common interest, like power scaling, we are conducting ‘technical exchanges’ right now to determine how we can assist each other,” Hill told USNI News after speaking at the Directed Energy Summit.
“Our expected result is lift in affordability, risk reduction, industry investment alignment, and most importantly, getting capability into the hands of our warfighters faster.”

MDA’s current interest in directed energy would be putting a boost-phase kill capability on an unmanned aerial vehicle that could provide persistent missile defense capability from high altitudes. The technical challenges to achieving that are many, but MDA’s incremental approach has already yielded some important lessons learned.

“What we really need is an air vehicle that is carrying a precision tracker that can track the target, understand what it’s doing in that boost and ascent phase, move that data to the kill laser, and then we lase it, and we’ve got to be on it with high beam quality and very stable beam so we can actually accumulate the energy to take it out. That’s the game that we’re in at the Missile Defense Agency,” Hill said during his presentation. To achieve that, “we want really high power so we have standoff range, so we don’t always have to be directly over enemy territory in order to take out a boosting missile. We want to be light so we can fit on an air vehicle. And we want to be able to control our beam.”

MDA learned lessons on developing a high-power laser during the Airborne Laser Test Bed and has more recently moved on to experimenting with using UAVs in missile defense events and putting smaller lasers on UAVs. Through prototyping and experimentation, MDA can tackle all these technology areas concurrently instead of creating a massive program of record that has to work through them all in a higher-cost and lengthier-timeline environment.

“We’ve been flying drones and capturing target tracks for years. We take them out, we do stereo tracks – and, in fact, during one of our [Standard Missile-3] tests we went out and did a stereo track,” Hill said.
“And we were operating at mid-altitude, so we weren’t way up like where we want to be eventually; we were in very close, we didn’t have the standoff distance we want; but we did prove to ourselves that we can go off and get a fire control-quality track, send it to a weapon system, and go lay ordnance on target. That’s pretty big. Is it the final solution? Is it what we want? Are we up high with the standoff distance with the high power we want? No, we’re not there. … But we learned a lot from it and it kind of contributes” to determining the next technology hurdles to tackle.

MDA is encouraging industry to innovate in the UAV design itself – while there are many current designs on the market, MDA needs an aircraft with great endurance, and one that can operate in the stratosphere. This will be included in an upcoming demonstration with three companies that touches on power, beam quality and the feasibility of operating a laser kill system from a UAV.

In the near term, Hill said MDA would also be pursuing advances in passive target acquisition, active track and handover, and beam stability at operational ranges, and exploring how the laser beam moves at high altitudes.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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