Solid-State Laser Weapons: They could offer virtually unlimited magazine depth and very low cost per shot compared to conventional air-defense weapons.
Ships in any navy today face two important limitations: magazine limitations and unfavorable cost exchange ratios.
Ships in the United States Navy rely on both surface-to-air missiles and Close-in Weapon Systems to shoot down enemy anti-ship missiles. While considered relatively adequate, these weapon systems are limited by the number of projectiles an individual ship can carry. Once on board ship magazines are depleted, a ship must leave the battle and take on more ammunition elsewhere, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles away, to reload.
Unfavorable cost exchange ratios refer to the cost of these defensive surface-to-air missiles compared to the cost of the missiles they are shooting down. U.S. Navy air-defense missiles are expensive and range from several hundred thousand dollars per missile to millions. If fighting an enemy with few anti-ship missiles or UAVs, this cost ratio is acceptable to persevere precious Navy personnel lives and ships. However, against an adversary with many anti-ship missiles or UAVs, this ratio becomes unsustainable.
However, there is a new type of weapon that has a virtually unlimited magazine depth and a cost per shot that could likely be measured in single digits: Solid State Lasers.
The advantages of Solid State Lasers are myriad. A recent Navy publication outlined these advantages in broad strokes, stating that “in addition to a low marginal cost per shot and deep magazine, potential advantages of shipboard lasers include fast engagement times, an ability to counter radically maneuvering missiles, an ability to conduct precision engagements, and an ability to use lasers for graduated responses ranging from detecting and monitoring targets to causing disabling damage.”
Still, some challenges must be overcome for lasers to become effective weapons. These challenges “relate to line of sight; atmospheric absorption, scattering, and turbulence (which prevent shipboard lasers from being all-weather weapons); an effect known as thermal blooming that can reduce laser effectiveness; countering saturation attacks; possible adversary use of hardened targets and countermeasures; and risk of collateral damage, including damage to aircraft and satellites and permanent damage to human eyesight, including blinding.”
Some skeptics point out that the imminent introduction of laser weapons into service has been predicted since the 1980s. Still, as laser weapon ambitions have become more realistic — fielding a laser weapon that can eliminate more minor threats close-in rather than a powerful laser taking down missiles from dozens of miles away — they’ve met more achievable goals. Though laser weapons are currently a far cry from the Star Wars-esque weapons envisioned during the last stages of the Cold War, they’re indeed becoming more powerful and more capable.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and Defense Writer based in Europe. He lives in Berlin and covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society.