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Lasers: The Future of the U.S. Navy (And China’s Nightmare?)

USS Antietam
East China Sea (Mar. 28, 2003) -- The guided missile cruiser USS Antietam (CG 54) underway in the rough seas of the East China Sea. Antietam is part of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) Battle Group. Antietam and Carl Vinson have just completed participating in Exercise Foal Eagle and are continuing their deployment in the western Pacific Ocean. Exercise Foal Eagle is an annual joint and combined field training exercise between the U.S. and Republic of Korea armed forces. The exercise is designed to strengthen relationships and improve interoperability between both nations through real world training scenarios. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Aaron Hampton.

Yes, the U.S. Navy is stacked with advanced submarines, aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, and much more. But what about laser weapons? 

A staple of science-fiction is now very real, as Lockheed Martin announced that it has delivered to the U.S. Navy a 60+ kW-class high-energy laser with integrated optical dazzler and surveillance (HELIOS). It is the first tactical laser weapon system to be incorporated into existing ships and provides directed energy capability to the fleet. Integrated and scalable by design, the multi-mission HELIOS system will reportedly be able to provide tactically relevant laser weapon system warfighting capability as a key element of layered defense architecture.

“Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Navy share a common vision and enthusiasm for developing and providing disruptive laser weapon systems,” said Rick Cordaro, vice president, Lockheed Martin Advanced Product Solutions. “HELIOS enhances the overall combat system effectiveness of the ship to deter future threats and provide additional protection for Sailors, and we understand we must provide scalable solutions customized to the Navy’s priorities. HELIOS represents a solid foundation for incremental delivery of robust and powerful laser weapon system capabilities.”

The defense giant has also suggested the potentially “game-changing” HELIOS system could also support long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. Lockheed Martin was awarded the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System (SNLWS) Increment 1, known as HELIOS, contract in January 2018 and has made steady progress on this rapid Directed Energy prototype.

According to Lockheed Martin, “The HELIOS system’s deep magazine, low cost per kill, speed of light delivery, and precision response enable it to address Fleet needs now and its mature, scalable architecture supports increased laser power levels to counter additional threats in the future. HELIOS leverages technology building blocks from significant, long-term internal research and development projects that continue to advance the Navy’s goal for fielding laser weapon systems aboard surface ships and putting the Navy on the right side of the cost curve for threat engagements.”

DEW Efforts Underway

As previously reported, the U.S. Navy has been working for over a decade on various efforts to equip warships with laser weapons that can confuse or destroy enemy systems. The service’s fiscal year 2023 (FY23) budget request had called for more than $103 million to support half a dozen laser weapon concepts. Lasers have also been seen as having the potential to revolutionize warfare, especially from a defensive standpoint.

One of the clear benefits is the cost. Rather than expending missiles that cost anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of dollars each to manufacture, a laser depends only on electrical output, which can be generated for less than $1 per shot.

This recent announcement indicates that progress has certainly been made with direct energy weapons (DEW).

“The U.S. defense industry has made significant strides in the field of DEW development over the past few years, as Lockheed Martin was able to transition from design to prototype in a mere two years following the award of the initial $150 million contract under the Surface Navy Laser Weapons Systems (SNLWS) Increment 1 program in 2018,” said Tristan Sauer, land domain analyst at international analytics firm GlobalData, explained in an interview with 19FortyFive.

As GlobalData noted, the first prototype HELIOS laser weapons system (LWS) was already being integrated on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer in 2020, while the second went to the White Sands Missile Range for laboratory testing that same year. HELIOS is a unique scalable 60kW LWS enabling the integration of multiple fire modes, and is thus capable of dazzling electro-optical sensors and gathering intelligence as well as inflicting significant thermal damage to hostile targets, a versatile and transformative weapons capability that still remains unattainable for many nations worldwide.

“Though the pace of global DEW development has certainly accelerated over the past decade, producing combat-ready high-energy lasers remain a significant challenge with very few states purporting to have fielded operational high-energy lasers,” Sauer continued. “For example, both the Chinese military’s 30kW Silent Hunter and LW-30 laser weapons systems have yet to be fielded en-masse.”

Other efforts to develop DEWs continues, but international progress remains slow. Creating something that once existed only in the realm of sci-fi doesn’t come easy.

“The UK’s Laser Directed Energy Weapon (LDEW) program, colloquially known as ‘Dragonfire,’ only completed the preliminary trails of their high-energy laser this July, while Israel announced earlier this month that its flagship Iron Beam LWS continues to undergo late-stage development,” Sauer explained, adding, “Only the Russian military’s Zadira-16, several of which were reportedly deployed to Ukraine, could be considered a widely operational high-energy LWS, and even then, the veracity of those reports remains difficult to assess.”

In May Russia claimed to have used a laser against a drone in Ukraine – possibly as a way to find a solution to combat unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Russian forces have sought an alternative to the expensive missiles fired by its Tor and Pantsir anti-aircraft systems.

Integrated Solution – Laser Aweigh

The analysts further suggested that the U.S. Navy’s decision to field the HELIOS system as part of the Aegis Combat System, an integrated naval weapons solution that currently equips 113 ships in the U.S. Navy fleet, indicates an undeniable level of confidence in the system’s capabilities. The Aegis Combat System could be seen as capable of providing a layered command and control framework for the deployment of a vessel’s weapons, and HELIOS’ multi-role LWS would be well-suited to a compact, layered air defense solution with both lethal and non-lethal effects.

In addition, HELIOS’ advanced target identification and tracking software have been optimized to counter the emerging threat posed by low-altitude, high-speed drones, which the U.S. Navy anticipates could constitute a large proportion of the future threat envelope faced by U.S. surface warfare vessels.

“Whilst other US military LWS development initiatives such as the Army’s DE-MSHORAD program with Raytheon or the Air Force Research Laboratory’s SHiELD project remain challenged by SWaP-C limitations,” said Sauer, “The Navy’s HELIOS deployment is a testament to the service’s consistent and long-term support of DEW development, which through steady investment and determination overcame severe technical challenges to produce one of the most advanced and versatile weapons in the US military’s arsenal today.”

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.