Lasers: Beyond The Power Problem

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April 22, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: April 22 on

WASHINGTON: Integration of lasers on ships and other weapons is the biggest challenge today— not power. Officers and officials say there are lots of devilish details to deal with before the US military can employ laser weapons on the battlefield, from beam control to targeting to controls you can operate without a PhD.

“I’m not as worried about the power,” said Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, director of surface warfare (N96) on the Navy’s Pentagon staff. “Everyone seems to be on this race to get more and more power, and make no mistake, we’ve got to get more power — but to me the problem I have today is the integration of that [laser] into my existing combat system.”

The Navy’s already experimented with a 30-kilowatt laser, LaWS, on the USS Ponce, and this year it will field a “roll-aboard” laser to blind sensors, ODIN, that can go on “anything that’s floating,” Boxall told last week’s Directed Energy Summit. But LaWS and ODIN are stand-alone systems that don’t connect to the combat system that controls a ship’s permanently installed weapons and sensors.

That means, among other things, that the laser doesn’t get targeting data from the ship’s radars and must rely entirely on its own built-in optics. Conversely, the laser’s optics can’t provide targeting data to any other weapon on the ship. And you really want the ships’ other weapons to be able to take advantage of the laser as a sensor: Lasers require extremely high-quality optics to work, and, when not firing, the crew of the Ponce found theirs useful as a super-telescope. In fact, Boxall said, lasers are so precise — both as sensors and as weapons — that they both supply and demand much more data, much faster, than the radar-guided missiles that the Navy’s Aegis fire control system is built around.

Getting lasers and Aegis to work together is a top priority for the Navy’s HELIOS laser program, which in 2021 will install a 60-kW-plus weapon on an Arleigh Burke destroyer and — unlike LAWS and ODIN — integrate it with the Aegis combat system. The HELIOS laser will actually replace an existing, proven missile defense weapon, a Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) gatling gun.

“I believe that the power will come, I believe that the improvement in beam quality will come,” Boxall said, “but where I’m not yet confident is, very few people are working on that integration.”

Read on for more on Navy HELIOS integration and Army beam control and MANTECH investments.