Over at P.G.’s place there was a link to an article about the deployment by the U.S. Navy of an operational ship based laser weapon.
I’d occasionally checked in on the status of laser weapons, since once deployed, the face of war changes permanently. They worked. They were large, expensive, messy things that often used a very toxic fluorine based chemical system. Shots were good, but a long time to reload and not a lot of shots until out of fuel. “Needs work” came to mind. So I’d not been following up very often. So I’m a bit late on this one.
What you want is a continuous laser that runs directly on electricity, is reasonably small, and has a high power output while not costing much. Oh, and it needs to be rugged too.
Seems that the metal cutting and welding folks wanted the same things, and found it…
Now the other important consideration is that our military often has a way cool tech that works, but doesn’t want the rest of the world to know it, due to the risk it poses to OUR stuff, or just the desire to have that edge “someday” if other folks catch up to where we are now (publicly). So the fact that this is now deployed means either we know other folks can see it clearly already, and can make it, and maybe ARE making it; and that we don’t expect it to stay an ‘edge’ on the shelf. So we are willing to adapt to what it means for the battle field.
So what is it, and what does it mean?
From P.G.s blog is this quote:
Navy declares laser weapons ready to protect ships in Persian Gulf
By Kris Osborn
Published December 11, 2014
The laser weapon system (LaWS) is tested aboard the USS Ponce amphibious transport dock Nov. 15, 2014. (REUTERS/John Williams/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters)
The Navy’s 30-kilowatt solid-state laser aboard the USS Ponce is now being fired in operational scenarios by sailors in the Persian Gulf, marking the first-ever deployment of a sea-based directed energy weapon.
“We’ve tested it in the lab we’ve tested it operationally at sea. Now, we are not testing it anymore. This is operational,” said Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research at the Office of Naval Research. “They are using it every day.”
If a small or large attack boat, missile or aircraft launched an attack upon the USS Ponce, sailors are equipped to destroy an approaching threat in seconds with the new laser weapon.
“If we had to defend that ship today, it will destroy any threat that comes in-bound. We have the ROE (rules of engagement) to support that,” he said.
The Navy’s Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, uses heat energy from lasers to disable or destroy targets fast, slow, stationary and moving targets. The system has successfully incinerated drones and other targets in tests shots, and is now operational aboard an amphibious transport dock, the USS Ponce.
There’s more at both P.G.s and at the embedded link to the original military.com article.
The key word here being “operational”. That means in use, today, and in battle if needed. “Battle ready”.
It costs between about 1/2 a buck and $1 a shot (depending on which source you believe) and can take out small targets like drones and small boats. Large ships not so much. Yet.
Right out the gate this shifts the battle dynamics and economics against small missiles and such. Kiss off the attack zodiac, the small $Million Missile, the kamikaze attacker. At $1 each, you can fire and miss with a lot of those shots and still have a big win when you eventually hit it.
It also looks like the thing is fairly robust:
Klunder said the system is durable and able to function in various weather conditions. He explained that the LaWS functioned extremely well following a dust storm in theater.
Along with analyzing data from the weapon’s operational use, Navy officials are also working on a much more powerful, next-generation 100 to 150 kilowatt laser weapon to be ready by 2016 or 2017, Klunder added.
Although future specifics are still being determined, the Navy is confident it will be putting laser weapons on a wide range of ship platforms to possibly include the destroyers, cruisers and the Littoral Combat Ship, among others.
“We’ve done analytical work and we know what ships we can put it on. Frankly it is a lot of them in the naval inventory. We’re talking through which ones we might want to do in the future, specifically those more suited to the higher power 100 to 150 kilowatt laser. That is the one we are really targeting for more extensive use,” he said.
So the one presently deployed is a 30 kW job, and they are already planning for 150 kW or 5 x the power. That will put a dent in much larger vessels, at further ranges. They are also expecting to glue it on to a lot of ships. That shifts the battlefield dynamics. (Even if you can’t sink a distant battleship, you will blind a lot of sailors and weapons sights / systems…) Expect to also see a lot more use of eye protection on ships, and the return of white clothes…
What kind of laser is this?
HOME DEFENCE PLATFORMS SEA PLATFORMS ARTICLE
Laser weapon breaks cover on USS Ponce
Richard Scott, London – IHS Jane’s Navy International
23 November 2014
A prototype 30 kW-class solid-state laser (SSL) weapon system developed under the leadership of the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), the LaWS integrates six commercial 5.4 kW fibre lasers with a beam combiner originated by the Naval Research Laboratory. To reduce costs, the programme has re-used some hardware previously developed or procured for other research applications, including: a L-3 Brashear KINETO K433 tracking mount; a 500 mm telescope; and high-performance infrared sensors.
So it uses a laser combiner to mix 6 smaller lasers, and the kind is a “fibre laser”. Seems that folks have gotten fiber optics to lase…
Advantages and applications
The advantages of fiber lasers over other types include:
Light is already coupled into a flexible fiber: The fact that the light is already in a fiber allows it to be easily delivered to a movable focusing element. This is important for laser cutting, welding, and folding of metals and polymers.
High output power: Fiber lasers can have active regions several kilometers long, and so can provide very high optical gain. They can support kilowatt levels of continuous output power because of the fiber’s high surface area to volume ratio, which allows efficient cooling.
High optical quality: The fiber’s waveguiding properties reduce or eliminate thermal distortion of the optical path, typically producing a diffraction-limited, high-quality optical beam.
Compact size: Fiber lasers are compact compared to rod or gas lasers of comparable power, because the fiber can be bent and coiled to save space.
Reliability: Fiber lasers exhibit high vibrational stability, extended lifetime, and maintenance-free turnkey operation.
High peak power and nanosecond pulses enable effective marking and engraving.
The additional power and better beam quality provide cleaner cut edges and faster cutting speeds.
Lower cost of ownership.
Fiber lasers are now being used to make high-performance surface-acoustic wave (SAW) devices. These lasers raise throughput and lower cost of ownership in comparison to older solid-state laser technology.
Fiber laser can also refer to the machine tool that includes the fiber resonator.
Applications of fiber lasers include material processing (marking, engraving, cutting), telecommunications, spectroscopy, medicine, and directed energy weapons.
Looks like that was the game changer. Rugged, continuous, low cost, runs on electricity, easy to cool, loads of power and scaleable.
Now that leaves just speculation about the future…
The first thing that comes to mind is the shift this makes to ship sizes. For a very long time now (since a about W.W.II) the pressure has been toward smaller ships + aircraft carriers. When one relatively cheap missile can take out a very expensive ship, it is better to have a couple of smaller cheaper ships. We’ve added a lot of antimissile defenses over the years, mostly to keep aircraft carriers alive, but that has been very expensive too. This is cheap.
So I’d expect to see a return of the large ships. Small ships will be easy to burn a hole through the hull. 2 Feet of steel not so much. There will also be a move toward surface coatings that reduce or prevent damage, if possible. (I remember one discussion of that, where it was asserted that the air near a mirrored missile surface gets hot enough to burn and the surface chars anyway, so mirroring was not effective… but I’d like to see more proof of that.) I could, for example, see folks investigating things like mineral ablative surfaces (heat shields on missiles anyone?…)
That leads to the interesting question of will we get bigger (thicker hull) ships, or shiny ships, or ships with composite armor, or what? I’m fairly sure ships will not look the same a decade from now as at present.
Tactics will likely also shift toward “when it doubt, shoot it down” for big things. If you do not have a positive ID on a plane, drone, ship, whatever and it is inside your defense perimeter, at $1 a shot you might as well shoot it. If big enough to carry their own laser, you do not want to be the guy who fires second… For things too small to have a laser, a delay in firing might be OK. You now have a lot of rapid fire, rapid aim shots, that lets you wait a bit and be sure. This looks to shift the ‘order of engagement’ for both big and small.
Overall, it looks to me like it makes both ship and shore based defenses far stronger than in the past. Offense via classical means is now harder. Shells, missiles, landing craft, helicopter flights. They all are now subject to cheap saturation burns. Stealth is more valuable, but if it has any weakness at all, expect to be fried. I could even see making a bunch of computer directed ‘scanning’ lower power shots to paint the sky and find the stealth craft, to then ‘smoke em’. Air Defense systems just might make a comeback against stealth anti-weapon systems, especially if $10,000 of electricity lets you ‘light up the sky’ with enough power to damage the stealth coatings on anything out there. ( 10,000 ‘pixel’ burns ought to cover a large percentage of the sky…)
IFF (Identify Friend or Foe) just got a big ratchet up. For “pixel burn scans” you must skip spots where you know you have an asset. For “what is that just at the limit of burn?” you want to not blow up your own zodiac bringing a team back inbound, or your own sub that just surfaced…
The folks who deploy this first have a big advantage… until the other folks deploy something similar. For ‘a while’ we can fry the Iranian shore defenses and their small boat units and missiles. At will and for nearly free. What happens in 10 years when they can fry our sensors and weapons on deck?
There will be some big dislocations as all this sorts itself out.