The Navy and Lockheed Martin are taking a substantial leap forward with ship-based, high-powered laser weapons designed to incinerate enemy drones and also perform ISR missions, tracking targets such as incoming enemy cruise missiles, aircraft, or ships.
Lockheed's High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) system "is the first of its kind, and brings together laser weapon, long-range ISR, and counter-UAS options available to the U.S. Navy," Michele Evans, Lockheed Martin, Vice President and General Manager of Integrated Warfare Systems and Sensors, said in a written statement.
As is the case with ground- and air-based laser systems, ship-fired lasers require large amounts of mobile electrical power necessary to generate and strengthen laser attacks.
The U.S. Navy Afloat Forward Staging Base (Interim) USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf. (U.S. Navy)
"HELIOS is one component of the Navy Laser Family of Systems and a major portion of the Navy's incremental strategy for delivery of increased laser weapon capability," Colleen O'Rourke, Spokeswoman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Warrior Maven.
The HELIOS will be the first fully integrated laser weapon system to field in the DoD, she added.
With this in mind, some of the Navy's newest surface combatants are, by design, engineered with much greater onboard power technology. For instance, the new Navy USS Zumwalt stealthy destroyer is powered by a cutting-edge Integrated Power System (IPS), an electric drive engineered to power ship propulsion, as well as onboard systems, such as computers, sensors, and weapons. Many point to the Zumwalt as an indication of the type of ship platform able to quickly integrate new weapons, such as lasers and railguns, as they emerge.
USS Zumwalt. (U.S. Navy)
Parallels to this can be identified with the ongoing development of the Navy's DDG 51 Flight III destroyers, which uses advanced generators and cooling technology to maintain and leverage the power necessary to support the new SPY-6 radar system. The new radar, said by developers to be more than 30 times more powerful than existing ship-based radar, requires advanced levels of power generation.
While the Navy has already deployed its Laser Weapon System (LAWs) on surface ships and demonstrated the weapon can succeed in attacking and incinerating enemy drones, this new laser advances the technology by engineering a multi-function laser system able to both attack targets and conduct ISR.
According to information from Lockheed developers, the HELIOS laser gives ship commanders a new range of options when it comes to layered-defense tactics. By using high-energy fiber lasers, HELIOS is designed to destroy drones and small boats. HELIOS ISR, Lockheed officials say, will operate within the ship-based Aegis Combat System. The weapon will also bring the stated advantage of detecting and thwarting enemy drone-based ISR.
The Arleigh-Burke class guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones launches a Standard Missile 6 during a live-fire test of the ship's Aegis weapons system. (Photo from US Navy)
"HELIOS will consist of both a High Energy Laser and a dazzler, and will be integrated with the AEGIS combat system and shipboard power and cooling aboard DDG Flt IIA ships," O'Rourke said.
The Navy's development plan calls for Lockheed to deliver the first two test weapons by 2020, with an option to deliver up to 14.
A Lockheed statement says, "One unit will be delivered for shipboard integration on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and one unit will be used for land testing at White Sands Missile Range."
Fast-emerging laser weapons bring a number of often-discussed advantages. Operating as part of a layered defense system, lasers offer an opportunity to "get ahead of the cost curve," with a much lower cost-per-shot when compared with expensive ship-fired interceptor missiles. Furthermore, by offering precision and heat-based incineration, laser weapons can reduce potentially complicated explosions and fragmentation while still achieving target destruction. Additionally, power generation needed for laser systems brings the added advantage of potentially supporting equally fast-growing electronic warfare technology.