The U.S. Navy's next laser weapon will break new ground for high-energy lasers. The Navy has awarded Lockheed Martin a US $150 million contract to develop, build, and deliver two copies of a new laser weapon for use on destroyers.
The new laser weapon system is called the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) system for the way it integrates three distinct capabilities.
One is a high-energy laser that the Navy has specified should generate 60 to 150 kilowatts of steady power, enough to disable or destroy small boats or hostile drones (called "unmanned aerial systems" by the military).
Another is using the associated optical system to gather intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information about an extended area around the ship, which it will share with the powerful radar-based Aegis Combat System that is standard on the class of Navy destroyers to carry the laser.
A third capability is to dazzle or confuse sensors and cameras on drones—but not to destroy them—with light from a lower-power laser, like a "stun" setting for robots on a Star Trek phaser.
“It's a watershed moment for us, to move out of the domain of [scientific and technical work] and into delivering real laser weapon system capability to deploy on Navy vessels," says Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed.
It's also the first stage of the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System program, which itself is the first project in a new effort by the U.S. Navy to speed development and deployment of such technologies.
The technology agencies of three branches of the military have spent the past several years testing demonstration models of electrically powered solid-state laser weapons, such as the 30-kilowatt Navy LaWS (LAser Weapon System) tested in the Persian Gulf.
One of the two new laser systems that Lockheed develops will go on an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, the backbone of the Navy’s destroyer fleet. Lockheed will deliver that laser by fiscal year 2020.
Then, Navy technicians will integrate the laser and its control systems with the ship's power, cooling, and battle management systems. That’s an important step—an earlier Navy LaWS system was never integrated with shipboard systems on the USS Ponce for testing.
The U.S. Navy tested a laser weapon mounted to the USS Ponce in 2014.Photo: John F. Williams/U.S. Navy
The other new laser built by Lockheed will be shipped to the White Sands Missile Range for extensive testing. The Lockheed contract includes options worth up to $942.8 million for training, maintenance, support, and additional lasers.
Electrically powered laser weapons have come a long way from the first bulk solid-state system that generated 100 kilowatts for five solid minutes in a Northrop Grumman laboratory nine years ago. To make the Navy LaWS, the Office of Naval Research bolted together six 5.5-kW industrial lasers.
To produce the higher power and more tightly focused beam needed to zap targets a kilometer or more away, Lockheed uses a technique called spectral beam combination. It blends the outputs of many fiber lasers emitting light at slightly different wavelengths.
The company first combined the 300-watt beams from 96 separate lasers to generate a single 30-kilowatt beam. Then, they built a 60-kilowatt version that they delivered last year to the Army Space and Missile Defense Systems Command in Huntsville, Ala. to install on a military truck.
Last year, Lockheed also landed a contract to build a pod-based laser weapon to test on a plane. Now, they will build two more brand new systems for the Navy.
Details differ between systems because each is customized to fit different spaces and meet other requirements. But Afzal says, "The system is scalable. We can't give you numbers, but the capabilities will continue to grow."
Jeff Hecht writes about lasers, optics, fiber optics, electronics, and communications. Trained in engineering and a life senior member of IEEE, he enjoys figuring out how laser, optical, and electronic systems work and explaining their applications and challenges. At the moment, he’s exploring the challenges of integrating lidars, cameras, and other sensing systems with artificial intelligence in self-driving cars. He has chronicled the histories of laser weapons and fiber-optic communications and written tutorial books on lasers and fiber optics.