From The Editor | May 20, 2013

Laser Weapon Systems: Ready For Prime Time?

By Jim Pomager
Follow me on Twitter @jpomager

Navy Laser Weapons System

Following years of speculation, anticipation, and (more recently) demonstrations, it appears that laser weapon systems will finally make their debut in the field sometime in the next year. The readiness and efficacy of lasers for combat use, however, remains a matter of some debate.

It appears that military laser weapons will, at long last, make the leap from the sci-fi fantasy to practical reality. Last month, the U.S. Navy announced plans to deploy the first solid-state laser aboard one of its warships during the DoD’s fiscal year 2014, which begins on October 1, 2013. The Navy believes the directed energy weapon will help protect its host craft, the USS Ponce, from threats like small, fast boats and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

While this development inarguably marks a major milestone, and there are certainly reasons to be enthusiastic about laser weapons’ future prospects, there are also many questions surrounding the near-term viability of the technology in the military arena. In this article, we’ll look at the latest round of demonstrations conducted by the world’s leading laser weapon programs, and explore the reasons why the technology just might — or might not — succeed.

Demos Fuel Optimism
The USS Ponce news was not entirely surprising, given the rapid strides laser weapon systems have made toward functional use recently. Laser weapons programs in the United States and abroad have conducted a flurry of impressive technology demonstrations over the past few months. Here’s an overview of the demo units and their results:

  • This month, Lockheed Martin announced that it had used its Area Defense Anti-Munitions (ADAM) system prototype to destroy eight free-flying small-caliber rocket targets (simulating improvised rockets like Qassam rockets) at a distance of 1.5 km during April tests. (See the video below.) The trailer-mounted, 10 kW fiber laser system also shot down tethered rockets and engaged an unmanned aerial system using an external radar cue during 2012 demonstrations.

  • In April, the Navy posted a video on YouTube (embedded below) showing its Laser Weapon System (LaWS) — the technology that will soon board the USS Ponce — setting fire to a UAV, sending it crashing into the ocean. Developed under the Office of Naval Research's Solid State Laser (SSL) program, LaWS acquires its targeting information from the MK 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon system’s radar or from another targeting source. The Navy has not made additional details on the solid-state fiber laser available.

  • Rheinmetall Defence demonstrated its 50 kW high-energy laser (HEL) technology in target detection, tracking, and engagement tests this March. The demo system paired a 30 kW weapon station with a 20 kW weapon station and cut through a 15 mm thick steel girder at 1,000 m; shot down target drones flying at 50 m/sec at a distance of 2 km; and detected, tracked, and destroyed an 82 mm steel ball in midair, traveling at 50 m/sec (imitating a mortar round).

Other laser weapons systems in development include Northrop Grumman’s Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD) and the joint Boeing-BAE MK 38 Tactical Laser System (TLS), though we haven’t heard from either on the demo front in some time.

6 Reasons To Like Laser Weapons
There’s a lot more to laser weapon technology than hype. Legitimate benefits include:

  • Operating cost. According to Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, each “shot” from the USS Ponce’s laser cannon will cost less than $1, compared to the thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars it costs to fire a missile or other ordnance.
  • Potentially unlimited ammunition. Laser systems are powered by electricity, which can be abundant on large military platforms like ships.
  • Safety. Since they don’t require propellants or explosives, weaponized lasers lack the risks inherent in missile systems (and other point defense weapons).
  • Precise targeting and control capabilities. Lasers are able to effectively target and engage objects moving at high rates of speed.
  • Flexibility. Lasers are capable of providing both nonlethal (for instance, they can “dazzle” a drone’s sensors, effectively blinding it) and lethal (see the videos above) force.
  • Efficiency. In addition to their operating cost benefit, laser systems could also enable ships and other vehicles to conserve missiles and artillery for use on other targets. (On a related note, lasers also produce a lot less waste than traditional kinetic weapons.)

Why You Should Temper Your Enthusiasm (For Now)
Not everyone is sold on laser weapons — at least not in their present form. Following are some issues that still must be overcome before these systems can achieve more widespread acceptance and use:

  • Initial investment. As you might expect, these laser weapons like the one being deployed on the USS Ponce are not inexpensive to produce — the Navy LaWS prototype was estimated to cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million.
  • Power. Many pundits believe that, in order to quickly inflict significant damage on a target, laser weapons will need to up the output power to at least 100 kW (i.e. >2x current levels). Ideally, these systems would destroy targets instantly, enabling them to be used against the biggest threat to large military platforms — incoming missiles. Even at 100 kW, it’s questionable whether a solid-state laser could ever destroy, for example, an anti-ship missile, so alternate laser technologies (e.g. free electron lasers) will need to be developed.
  • Atmospheric propagation. Moisture in the atmosphere can significantly hinder the effectiveness of laser weapons, particularly in maritime environments. If the current crop of laser systems can’t successfully penetrate fog, rain, mist, etc., they may never become stand-alone, all-weather solutions, meaning they will remain joined at the hip with traditional kinetic weapons.
  • Safety. I know I cited this as a potential strength of laser weapons, but there are still some safety concerns that need to be addressed. For instance, what happens if a missed laser “shot” hits a civilian aircraft or a satellite?

So are laser weapon systems ready for prime time? Sort of. While the Navy’s solid-state laser deployment is ahead of schedule (it was initially targeted for FY2017), laser weapon technology is unlikely to reach full maturity for many years. Still, it will be interesting to see how the USS Ponce system fares in the field — and how other military laser platforms progress in parallel. (According to the Navy’s announcement, the USS Ponce system is “part of a wider portfolio of near-term Navy directed energy programs that promise rapid fielding, demonstration, and prototyping efforts for shipboard, airborne, and ground systems.”) The next 12 to 18 months should be telling.

What are your thoughts on laser weapons? Are they ready to contribute? What work still needs to be done? What type of laser technology will ultimately have the biggest impact? And what’s next — photon torpedoes? Please share your comments below.