The amphibious transport ship USS Ponce has been patrolling with a prototype 30-kilowatt-class Laser Weapon System since late August, according to officials. The laser is mounted facing the bow, and can be fired in several modes — from a dazzling warning flash to a destructive beam — and can set a drone or small boat on fire.
The prototype focuses the light from six solid-state commercial welding lasers on a single spot, according to a July 31 Congressional Research Service report. It “can effectively counter surface and airborne threats, to include small boats” and drones, Miller said, and firing it costs about a dollar a shot, according to the Navy.
Department of Defense (DOD) development work on high-energy military lasers, which has been underway for decades, has reached the point where lasers capable of countering certain surface and air targets at ranges of about a mile could be made ready for installation on Navy surface ships over the next few years. More powerful shipboard lasers, which could become ready for installation in subsequent years, could provide Navy surface ships with an ability to counter a wider range of surface and air targets at ranges of up to about 10 miles.
The Navy reportedly anticipates moving to a shipboard laser program of record in “the FY2018 time frame” and achieving an initial operational capability (IOC) with a shipboard laser in FY2020 or FY2021
The Navy would want to deploy tactical and point defense lasers on ships in 2020-2025 and then move up to megawatt lasers on aircraft carriers for area defense.
The lessons from the one-year Ponce deployment will feed Navy laser development by industry teams led by BAE Systems Plc (BAESY), Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) and Raytheon Co. (RTN), to field a more powerful weapon, possibly by 2021.
The approximate laser power levels needed to affect certain targets:
• Lasers with a power level of about 10 kW might be able to counter some UAVs at short range, particularly “soft” UAVs (i.e., those with design features that make them particularly susceptible to laser damage).
• Lasers with power levels in the tens of kilowatts could have more capability for countering UAVs, and could counter at least some small boats as well.
• Lasers with a power level of about 100 kW would have a greater ability for countering UAVs and small boats, as well as some capability for countering rockets, artillery, and mortars.
• Lasers with power levels in the hundreds of kilowatts could have greater ability for countering targets mentioned above, and could also counter manned aircraft and some missiles.
• Lasers with power levels in the megawatts could have greater ability for countering targets mentioned above—including supersonic ASCMs and ballistic missiles—at ranges of up to about 10 nautical miles.
The Navy and DOD are developing three principal types of lasers for potential use on Navy surface ships:
• fiber solid state lasers (SSLs),
• slab SSLs, and
• free electron lasers (FELs).
All three types are electrically powered
Fiber Solid State Lasers (Fiber SSLs)
Fiber solid state lasers (SSLs) are widely used in industry—tens of thousands are used by auto and truck manufacturing firms for cutting and welding metal. Consequently, they are considered to be a very robust technology.
Laser Weapon System (LaWS)
One fiber SSL prototype demonstrator developed by the Navy, called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), had a beam power of 33 kW. The Navy at one point envisioned LaWS being used for operations such as disabling or reversibly jamming EO sensors, countering UAVs and EO guided missiles, and augmenting radar tracking. The Navy envisioned installing LaWS on a ship either
on its own mount or as an add-on to an existing Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) mount. The Navy funded work to integrate LaWS with CIWS, to support the latter option
Tactical Laser System
Another Navy fiber SSL effort is the Tactical Laser System (TLS)—a laser with a beam power of 10 kW that is designed to be added to the Mk 38 25 mm machine guns installed on the decks of many Navy surface ships.25 TLS would augment the Mk 38 machine gun in countering targets such as small boats; it could also assist in providing precise tracking of targets. The Navy in March 2011 awarded a $2.8 million contract to BAE to develop a prototype of the TLS over a 15-month period. Boeing is collaborating with BAE on the project. The TLS effort was initiated following a January 2008 incident involving Iranian small boats.
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