The US Navy is pursuing a multi-pronged approach to fielding energy weapons by the end of the decade, with the hopes of upgrading its 30 kilowatt laser gun to 100 kw or more, and giving its electromagnetic railgun a higher repetition rate.
Rear Adm. Bryant Fuller, chief engineer at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), said in a panel presentation at the Directed Energy Summit, hosted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and Booz Allen Hamilton, that both follow-on technologies should be in the hands of sailors in the fleet by 2020.
“Sometime in the very near future” the Navy will award a development contract for the larger follow-on system, a laser gun of 100 to 150 kw. That weapon will go out to sea for a demonstration by FY 2018, he said, keeping in line with the goal of transitioning technology from the lab to the warfighter as quickly as possible for operational testing.
The other half of the Navy’s push to deliver energy weapons to the fleet is the electromagnetic railgun. A manual-load version will go to sea on a Joint High Speed Vessel next year, but the Navy is already working on a version that would allow for 10 shots per minute. This “rep rate” version, despite challenges including thermal management in the barrel, is expected to go to sea by FY 2019.
Once the Navy reaches the higher-powered laser gun and the more operationally useful “rep rate” railgun, the service will have to figure out how to deploy them. Fuller said the Navy just wrapped up a feasibility study on the Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyers, and leadership will be briefed on the results soon. Other studies, including one on the Arleigh Burke-class DDG-51 destroyers, are ongoing. The results will help the Navy identify where to put these weapons when they first go out to sea and what challenges they may face – with power conditioning and integration being a big concern for the Navy at this time, Fuller said.
The railgun may also make an appearance in Army ground units. Army Brig. Gen. Neil Thurgood, program executive officer for missiles and space, said at the same panel presentation that his service would like the railgun to address the short-range ballistic missile threat. The Navy is taking the lead on development but the Army is already working on doctrine and tactics, techniques and procedures for using such a weapon. It will help the Army conduct missile defense with more rounds shot off faster, that can hit incoming missiles farther out from their target, and at a lower cost per engagement, Thurgood said.
The Navy, in addition to developing the railgun itself, is working on a hypervelocity projectile (HVP) that will support both the railgun and conventional 5-inch guns.