Home » Budget Industry » Navy Requests $300M to Develop Shipboard Defensive Laser Weapons


Navy Requests $300M to Develop Shipboard Defensive Laser Weapons

A 2012 image of a Navy laser weapons system. US Navy Image

The Navy proposed spending $299 million in Fiscal Year 2019 on laser systems to protect ships against current and anticipated future threats, as part of a rapid prototyping, experimentation and demonstration initiative.

For nearly a decade, the Navy has considered laser technology a more cost-efficient and effective tool to protect ships from emerging threats such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and small patrol craft that could swarm a surface ship, according to a Congressional Research Service report, Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress.

The Navy wants to move development of lasers a step closer to deployment, according to budget documents released by the Navy earlier this month.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the Navy wants to purchase four ship-mounted Surface Navy Laser Weapon Systems (SNLWS), which include a High Energy Laser with an integrated low-power laser dazzler. If successful, this system would provide ships with a new means of countering unmanned aerial vehicles, fast inshore attack craft and adversary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.

The Navy also hopes to install two Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy systems (ODIN) on Arleigh-Burke-class guided-missile destroyers in the upcoming fiscal year. This system is described by budget documents as being a near-term shipboard counter-ISR capability.

When contacted by USNI News, officials from the Office of Naval Research declined to comment about the development of the Navy’s laser family of weapons.

Ultimately, the goal for the Navy is to improve the ability of ships to defend themselves against anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), according to the CRS report. The Navy’s current ship defense systems have two key limitations: current defensive systems cost much more than the relatively inexpensive threats they protect against, and ships can only carry a finite supply of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and ammunition for close-in weapons.

“In the FY2018 defense budget, procurement costs for Navy SAMs range from about $976,000 per missile to several million dollars per missile, depending on the type,” reads the CRS report.

In a limited engagement, current systems can provide adequate protection, the report continues.

“But in combat scenarios (or an ongoing military capabilities competition) against a country such as China that has many UAVs and anti-ship missiles and a capacity for building or acquiring many more, an unfavorable cost exchange ratio can become a very expensive – and potentially unaffordable – approach to defending Navy surface ships against UAVs and anti-ship missiles.”

The 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) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf on November 17, 2014. US Navy photo.

Additionally, the Navy requested funds in the budget to mature other laser weapon technologies it has already begun to pursue. The Navy plans to spend money to research increasing the wattage of its laser technology it plans to use onboard the San Antonio-class (LPD-17) of amphibious warships. The service will test a Solid State Laser Technology Maturation system, a 150-kilowatt laser weapon demonstrator that will support future laser development for the LPD class of ship. The Navy is also exploring alternative 150-kilowatt laser sources by employing different laser architectures.

In comparison, the Navy in 2014 deployed its first laser system, a 30-kilowatt laser weapon system, aboard USS Ponce (AFSB(I)-15).

Boosting beam power to between 150 kilowatts and 300 kilowatts is considered necessary by Navy researchers to counter “at least some anti-ship cruise missiles,” according to the Congressional Research Service report.

“Even stronger beam powers – on the order of at several hundred kilowatts, if not one megawatt [MW] or more – could improve a laser’s effectiveness against ASCMs and perhaps enable it to counter anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMS).”

  • Centaurus

    Lets blast ’em

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I still think employing photon torpedoes would be more effective!

    • Brandon Cord Bradshaw

      pew pew

  • homey

    the obvious counter-laser technology will be ships made out of mirrors…lol

    • RedStatePatriot

      Wrong on so many levels.

      • Adrian Ah

        How so? If fog and mist can affect the laser, why wouldn’t a reflective surface? Would you mind, when you have time, explaining a bit more?

        • RedStatePatriot

          People tried to say this same argument about missile and aircraft defense. The misunderstanding about mirrors is that the type of mirror required to reflect the kind of energy we are talking about would be pretty much impossible to make and manage. Mirrors used in laboratories to do laser research are extremely dense high quality mirrors, and that makes then very heavy and very costly. Also, they are in a dust free “clean” room, as any spec would destroy the mirror. Trying to cover an aircraft or missile with such inches thick heavy objects is to render the object unable to fly. A ship could might do better, but think about the fact that at these wattages even the tiniest speck of dust or water spot would be enough to heat that part to melting instantly. How do you keep tens of thousands of mirrors laboratory clean? It would be an impossible task to cover a ship with mirrors. Besides I think a HUGE shiny sun reflecting ship would be pretty easy for the enemy to spot.

  • Zinchuk

    Serious question: what happens in pea soup fog when an incoming antiship missile is on its way? Will there be enough range for any laser to effectively work in those conditions, or will the scattering effect of the water vapour render it moot?

    • Pat Patterson

      Fog to some extent will also affect incoming missile sensors depending on the system.

    • Mr. Speaker

      For that reason and a couple others DoD should develop directional HPM in parallel.

      • Ctrot

        Do you mean directional EPM?

        • Curtis Conway

          LMAO!!!

          • Ctrot

            Search for “Raytheon EMP weapon tested by Boeing” 😉

          • Curtis Conway

            ooooh. Like that! Keep that up Ctrot and you will be giving Rocco a run for his money on leading my Fan Club.

    • Chesapeakeguy

      Well, ships will still have SAMs and point defense systems.

  • delta9991

    These weapons need to get on ships and at FOBs ASAP. While not powerful enough for C-RAM or mobile duties yet, they would be an excellent counter to the small drones now being employed en mass on the battlefield (see UAE patriot battery, Syrian/Russian airbase attack etc) against static targets. Start them off in this highly useful role, then slowly work them into maneuver forces as the tech matures with lessons from the field.

  • Hugh

    And Russia and China are developing airborn anti-satellite lasers.

  • Duane

    It’s already been demonstrated that 30kw laser weapons can shoot down small UAVs. Scaling up to 300kw or better yet 1mw+ makes ASCM or ASBM potentially feasible.

    The Navy is right to focus on development of both directed energy weapons and railgun. The economics and logistics of firing hundreds of ASCMs at a cost of about a million per missile, to destroy CSGs with a dollar value collectively in the tens of billions, are obvious. For those who pooh pooh ASCM swarms numbering in the hundreds, they are wrong. China and Russia can easily launch such salvos at a given CSG, using long range missiles launched from land, surface ships, submarines, and aircraft. Every jet fighter can deploy one or two ALASCMs. Heavy bombers can deploy dozens. Our own B1B can now deploy two dozen LRASM per aircraft. There is no physical or logistical limit on what numbers can be launched from China’s coast.

    The Navy better field a heavy laser system or railgun pronto, or else we risk making our huge investment in a surface fleet nearly useless in a major naval war. Just as useless as was our pre-war investment in heavy battleships come December 7, 1941.

    • @USS_Fallujah

      You are correct, though the logistics and CIC complications is successfully launching such a swarm are not to be discounted, I say this not to downplay the threat, but to point out it’s necessary, even if LaWS & Railguns are enormously successful, to attack the kill chain of your adversary’s weapons system, and indeed their entire A2/AD umbrella. Finding & tracking ships at sea, even enormous targets like a CVN is very hard, doing it at ranges exceeding the reach of a CBG is extremely difficult (especially when you take into account the long range strike capability of the TLAMs carried by the escorts and SSGNs, wherein the role of the old A-6 is now performed by unmanned kamikazes).
      Looking at the difficulties of launching such a swarm, you have to first find said CBG, not easy when the ships are under EMCON and radiating E-2Ds might give you a very general fix, but nothing nearly good enough to launch ASCM (or ASBMs) from. That ISR gap is the biggest liability of the long range strike kill chain, destroying or jamming the ISR assets, disrupting CIC, jamming or hacking mid-course guidance to an ASCM/ASBM are all equally (if not more) important as destroying the weapon itself. It’s easy to get so focused on shooting the arrow you forget about shooting the archer (or blinding him, or avoiding him entirely).

      • Centaurus

        When the Atmospheric ablative efx on the beam tale hold, we won’t be beating our chests so loudly.

        • @USS_Fallujah

          LaWS has some great possibility, but the beam power (and dealing with excess heat created) required to deal with less than ideal atmospheric conditions makes this far from the “game changer” (god I hate the overuse of that term by the USN) envisioned, it IS a very useful tool in the AAW (and SuWA) toobox, but to think mastering this will make every other form of defense obsolete is foolishly optimistic.

          • Centaurus

            I think you read this thread waaay too much.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            Fact Check: Mostly True.

          • Duane

            The point is not that EM weapons make every other defense technology obsolete … that is a staw man argument. The point is that without the perceived capabilities of EM weapons, surface ships are already on their way to being obsolete in the face of massive ASCM salvos coming from multiple widely distributed launch platforms that can easily overwhelm any possible defense consisting solely of anti-missile missiles. Surface ships have a finite capacity to launch AMMs, limited by the number of launchers deployable on board. With land based and air launched ASCMs there is no practical limit on the number of missiles that can be launched. That is the essential challenge to the survivability of any surface fleet – our or theirs – in 21st century naval warfare.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            You say “easily” I say not.
            That said they need to expand capabilities for intercept outside of the traditional missile interceptor, but also must look to attack the entire kill chain, including making sure that they enemy ISR assets are under threat long before they can provide the needed target and track data.

          • Duane

            When the “kill chain” consists of a limitless number of ground based launchers along thousands of miles of Chinese Pacific Ocean coastline … and thousands of Chinese fighter aircraft each carrying two ALASCM … and hundreds of Chinese long range heavy bombers carrying up to a couple dozen ALASCMs each … and 500+ PLAN warships carrying dozens or up to 100+ SLASCMs each, just how do you kill that “kill chain”?

            You can’t.

            Military forces cannot defend against overwhelming superiority of offensive weapons (i.e., when the enemy can fire vastly more missiles than you have anti missile missiles to shoot at them) unless you have a technological edge that nullifies the enemy’s numerical edge. With naval surface missile warfare, the only tech edge we might deploy is some combination of EM weapons that provide effectively limitless magazines and effective electronic countermeasures to disrupt or divert incoming fires.

            The US Navy has figured this out, even if you haven’t, that surface warships cannot possibly carry and launch enough AMMs to defeat an ASCM barrage that has no practical upper limit.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            How do you launch all those ASCMs without a targeting solution? You don’t. How do you get that targeting solution, by putting ISR assets in position to get that data for you to launch from, that ISR asset is vulnerable, to get a track they need to approach the target well within the CBGs own A2/AD umbrella. You can’t launch ASCMs over hundreds (or a thousand) miles based on a satellite image, the distance is too far, the flight time too long and the seeker head of the ASCM to small.
            So while you are correct that a better way of intercepting inbound missiles must be found, it’s foolish to think this alone can provide you the protection you need, all aspect of the kill chain must be disrupted to ensure survival of a surface force, and that starts with enemy ISR assets, then communications & command and finally physical intercept & soft kills (dazzlers/jamming/decoys).
            You are right that it’s an increasingly dangerous world for surface ships, but its foolish in my view to view direct energy weapons as a panacea. They’re just another screw driver in the tool box.

      • Duane

        Actually you overstate the difficulty of finding and tracking ships at sea “from long range”. First of all, long range from what? The missile launcher, or the sensor? In 21st century warfare, the sensors can be anywhere and everywhere, all networked together. On surface ships, on land, on long range surveillance aircraft both manned and unmanned, and satellites. If a given enemy power wants to keep tabs on the entire western half of the Pacific, they can, and do.

        Then those networked sensor data can be used for initial launch and mid course guidance until the missile can lock on to the target with its own sensors. That is what the US Navy calls ” distributed lethality” and NIFCCA. We must assume the Chinese and Russians are developing the same capabilities.

        The day when surface vessels and attack groups could hide out undetected in a big wide ocean and launch surprise air attacks are over.

        • @USS_Fallujah

          I overstate nothing. It’s a very big ocean and ISR assets are extremely vulnerable, unless they’re submarines. NIFC-CA is a defensive system to network defensive assets, doing the same thing on the attack end only works if you can get the node into position to detect and track your target for long enough to get the weapon into position to attack on internal sensors. Doing so with a CBG is extremely difficult as the reach of the E-2D (and eventually F-35C) is better than the search/track capability of the enemy ISR asset and is backed up by tactical aircraft to engage (or via NIFC-CA with an escorts SM-6).
          This is not to say it can’t be done, but it’s far more difficult than you allow for, and this portion of defensive battle is not to be ignored, first avoid detection, next deny the enemy sufficient contact to launch an attack, 3rd disrupt his command and communications structure, 4th attack his launch capability, and if all that fails you attack the weapon system itself, first by jamming/hacking his mid-course guidance, then and only then with intercepts. The last part gets all the attention, but it’s everything leading up to that engagement (or avoiding it) that wins the battle.

          • Duane

            You do overstate. And NIFCCA is in no way limited to defensive use … you write otherwise with a straight face???

            So a FA-18, F-35, or P3 or MQ4 looks the other way when it senses an enemy surface warship, and does not feed that data into the network so that warbirds loaded with Harpoons, LRASM, or NSM …. or surface warships, submarines, and land base launchers can target and take out those assets? And that our enemies do the same?

            That is preposterous, equivalent to averting your eyes from the overwhelming reality of today’s 21st century naval warfare. Finding surface warships with todays multiply-deployed sensors feeding target data to US launch platforms is already reality, and is growing in capability every year. We have to assume (and our military intelligence services have quite likely already confirmed) that the Chinese and Russians are feverishly working to develop the equivalent capabilities.

            It is China’s publicly stated objective to practice A2/AD and to nullify the US Navy’s forces in the western Pacific out to at least the third island chain. We better have the antidote readily available ASAP.

          • @USS_Fallujah

            NIFC-CA is not configured for attack, the data links can be, but not in a seamless manner in which NIFC-CA is intended to work, they are developing it as a capability, but again, it’s not nearly as easy as you think.
            Actionable ISR is very hard, and very dangerous. Technology can help, but the physical limitations on the platforms involved cannot be discounted – and if you want to survive you’d better work very hard to prevent yourself being in the crosshairs of your enemy, no matter how good your defensive network if they get a bead on you, there will be loses.

    • Mr. Speaker

      That might work in a video game but there are spectrum interference issues if you launch a swarm.

      • Duane

        Curent ASCM tech uses multimode seekers, including passive RF, semi active laser, FLIR with real-time imaging and target discrimination, and mm wave radar, at the least. More to come in the future. Our own latest gen ASCMs and even guided gun projectiles do just that.

        We have to assume China and Russia have the same weapons and sensors.

        • Mr. Speaker

          True but not all have those capabilities so EMI in a swarm is still a factor.

      • Spectrum interference issues? That’s the problem with the idea? Not the fact that China would literally have to line up half its surface fleet like something out of the Napoleonic Wars to get anything approaching the missile density Duane is talking about?

    • Retired weps

      “surface fleet nearly useless in a major war…” yep, with a fleet made up of LCS you couldn’t be more correct

      • RedStatePatriot

        Since when is the US Surface fleet only LCS?

  • Marc Apter

    The more they up the power of the Laser, the larger this weapon will be. Think of this weapon as a gun mount, with limited angle of fire, and having all the projectiles available only in the mount. Other then a power cord, even cooling generation must be in the mount.

    • Duane

      The laser weaps are tiny compared to naval guns or large arrays of VLS. And the electrical power requirement is also very small compared with rail guns, which need power measured in 10s of MW, while even the largest lasers the Navy envisions are barely over 1 MW. The physical size and weight of a 1MW class power plant and capacitor bank is something that could fit in the equivalent of a short shipping container.

      Railguns, however, require an order of magnitude larger power supply as compared to any laser gun now in development. A laser weapon can be practically deployed on any size surface warship from a frigate on up, with the necessary design integration. I expect that the final design of the FFG(X) to include some version of a laser weapon.

  • PolicyWonk

    I’d like to see a few of these deployed in the LCS fleet – if anything needs help defending itself that would be it. But these weapons have other uses, as was discovered on the Ponce: their optics make for outstanding surveillance tools.

    And while the “defensive” aspect of these weapons is touted, its the offensive potential that could really change the game.

    • Adrian Ah

      Initially, I agreed with you. But then I realised the LCS has very weak armament and it wouldn’t be difficult, with a little planning, for China to seize a LCS, and have an actual Optical Weapon to copy and make for themselves. Most other naval vessels have either far more weapons, travel with escorts, or have hundreds more crew to either fight off an attempted capture, or sabotage the laser and software.

    • Real sailor

      that’s akin to put several $100 bills in a pile of dog shit-just to show off to your friends 😛

    • Mr. Speaker

      Their optics are okay to a point. Obviously they’re limited to a soda straw FOV so for ASMD have to be cued. Foresight would have built in a manual control mode for a modest surveillance capability but then does it just provide a raw feed to a display or something useful with metadata for the intel weenies….
      Regardless, there are already EO/IR systems that would make investing in a state-of-the-art surveillance capability for this system kind of foolish

  • William Sager

    The Devil is in the details. The technology to build the lasers is pretty much here and on a per unit bases not very expensive. That is assuming the ships have a hybrid style drive system designed to provide a steady power burst required for such a weapon. Which at this point limits them to just our carriers and those two Zumwalt class Destroyers.

  • john

    $300M is probably not enough money. At 1MW ASBMs become prey. The burn through rate on cruise missiles will be a fraction of a second. There is nothing like 500K degree hot metal plasma for downing missiles.

  • Adrian Ah

    How long does the laser have to be applied to the missile before it breaks up? Is it- a split second exposure to the high powered beam will slice and dice the missile, or does it have to be in contact for several seconds?

    I ask because I doubt a laser on a swivel mount can turn fast enough to maintain contact with a missile travelling at mach 3. Of course if I am wrong, please let me know (but politely please!)

    • Mach 3 is roughly 1000 meters per second. At a short range of say 10,000 meters, a Mach 3 target will thus have a maximum angular velocity of 5.7º degrees per second. Given that a WWII heavy cruiser could train its 300 ton 8″ turrets at 5.3º per second, I don’t there is an issue.

  • Pacemaker4

    Recharge rates will be the determining factor wont they? Power of the laser determines the range that they can reasonably engage. What is the range and recharge rates currently?
    Seems that a submarine would be the most dangerous of enemy launch platforms, short range to target with less time to react…and re shoot if a miss occurs.