Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report R44175, Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress
The Navy is currently developing three potential new weapons that could improve the ability of its surface ships to defend themselves against enemy missiles—solid state lasers (SSLs), the electromagnetic railgun (EMRG), and the hypervelocity projectile (HVP).
Any one of these new weapon technologies, if successfully developed and deployed, might be regarded as a "game changer" for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles. If two or three of them are successfully developed and deployed, the result might be considered not just a game changer, but a revolution. Rarely has the Navy had so many potential new types of surface-ship missile-defense weapons simultaneously available for development and potential deployment. The HPV in particular has emerged as a program of particular interest to the Department of Defense (DOD), which is exploring the potential for using the weapon across multiple U.S. military services.
Although the Navy in recent years has made considerable progress in developing SSLs, EMRG, and HVP, a number of significant development challenges remain. Overcoming these challenges will likely require years of additional development work, and ultimate success in overcoming them is not guaranteed.
The issue for Congress is whether to approve, reject, or modify the Navy’s funding requests and proposed acquisition strategies for these three potential new weapons. Potential oversight questions for Congress include the following:
- Using currently available approaches for countering anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), how well could Navy surface ships defend themselves in a combat scenario against an adversary such as China that has large numbers of ASCMs (including advanced models) and ASBMs? How would this change if Navy surface ships in coming years were equipped with SSLs, EMRG, HVP, or some combination of these systems?
- How significant are the remaining development challenges for SSLs, EMRG, and HVP?
- Are current schedules for developing SSLs, EMRG, and HVP appropriate in relation to remaining development challenges and projected improvements in enemy ASCMs and ASBMs? To what degree are current schedules for developing SSLs, EMRG, or HVP sensitive to annual funding levels?
- When does the Navy anticipate issuing roadmaps detailing its plans for procuring and installing production versions of SSLs, EMRGs, and HVP on specific Navy ships by specific dates?
- Will the kinds of surface ships that the Navy plans to procure in coming years have sufficient space, weight, electrical power, and cooling capability to take full advantage of SSLs (particularly those with beam powers above 200 kW) and EMRG? What changes, if any, would need to be made in Navy plans for procuring large surface combatants (i.e., destroyers and cruisers) or other Navy ships to take full advantage of SSLs and EMRG?
- Are the funding sources for SSLs, EMRG, and HVP in Navy and Defense-Wide research and development accounts sufficiently visible for supporting congressional oversight?