The world of warfare just changed. Big ships or shiny ships to return?

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 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?

Sea Platforms
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
Fiber Laser

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.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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51 Responses to The world of warfare just changed. Big ships or shiny ships to return?

  1. agesilaus says:

    I just read an article a few days ago stating the Navy plans to install a railgun on the last of the Zumwalt class DD. So they are moving ahead with two high tech weapon systems. I haven’t been very impressed with the videos that the USN has released on that laser being used on small boats. But they could very well concealing more destructive demonstrations.

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    An added benefit is the almost lack of recoil. A heavy gun requires a heavy structure to support it. With a “laser cannon” any craft that can provide the needed power can support the device. May need to return to the work of Tesla on a cloaking device. ;-) pg

  3. omanuel says:

    Thanks for this update on the latest use of technology for warfare.

    Regretfully, technical advancements will not solve spiritual ills of society.

  4. Speed says:

    Klunder: “This is operational.”
    Peter Morrison (program officer for the Navy’s solid state laser program): “We wouldn’t build a production line off what that design is currently.”

    Hold on to your wallet.

    “Get me off gunpowder,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said, noting that the cost to shoot either a laser or rail gun would be substantially less than it costs to shoot a missile, and would reduce the amount of explosive ammunition on his ships.
    [ … ]
    Even though the laser was provided extra protection to be able to operate aboard deck, more work is needed.

    “Lasers will be in the sea environment and they will get dunked. Green water over the bow is real life. So having to dunk optics in sea water — and then having to clean them, and be concerned about how they are going to be maintained — that’s not going to be an ensign you are going to send out there with a bottle of Windex. That’s not where you want to be in real time, when you need to be able to fight … swarm threats coming to you,” Morrison said.

    The seawater’s impact on the optic’s sensitive coatings over long deployments are also a takeaway the Navy is focusing on, Morrison said.
    [ … ]
    “We understood when we put that system on the Ponce — it was something that was a technology demonstrator — something we are able to improve. But there’s an end-of-life to it. .”

    First it mounted a laser aboard a ship in the Persian Gulf. Now the Navy has publicly unveiled another futuristic weapon: the electromagnetic “rail gun.”

  5. Speed says:

    Speaking of the Navy … here is an interesting piece on the Navy’s shipbuilding process — from a gleam in an Admiral’s eye to completion or cancellation.

  6. Larry Ledwick says:

    With Russian supercavitating torpedoes with a top speed of 200 knots and Chinese hypersonic anti-ship missiles coming on line, the Navy needs to seriously re-think some of its combatants and tactics. The economics and time on target (projectile speed) of a rail gun is a nice fit for a one on one defense against the hypersonic missiles especially if they can adapt antimissile warhead technology for a smart slug for the rail gun, but that still leaves a battle of numbers, if you can get enough incoming threats just like the Kamikaze planes in WWII you can over whelm the defensive pickets and close in defenses of the fleet. The lasers are cute but I would not want the job of keeping their optics clean in an ocean going environment, not to mention issues like heavy fog and rain scattering and attenuation of the beam.

  7. H.R. says:

    If they are going to start shooting at me with lasers, then my highly reflective tin foil hat might finally prove to be useful ;o)

    Seriously, when it gets down to handheld laser weapons, are we even going to bother with ground troop warfare any more? I suppose that if it turns out that highly reflective gear is an effective ‘armor’ against lasers, there’s nothing wrong with going back to good ol’ fashioned bullets.

    Now, rail guns look to be the future. The ol’ reliable result of hurling a certain mass at high velocity, which tends to puncture, mangle, and mutilate whatever is in its way, combines the tried and true with an improved delivery mechanism. Something to mull on, but that’s progress.

    Speaking of progress, humans have steadily advanced their killing technology; moving from the rock to the head, to sharpened sticks, to sharpened stones on the ends of sticks, to bows and atlatls to better deliver sharp stones on sticks, to bronze sword and spear thingys, to catapults, to explosive propelled objects, to propelled objects with explosives. So it seems a part of our basic nature has remained unchanged since dirt was invented. Technology has improved but humans are not much further along since Cain killed Able.

    (P.S. Noted and agreed; lasers on a foggy or rainy day could be problematic. So I’m thinking if schools have snow days, are future wars going to have rain delays?)

  8. M Simon says:

    Fog, rain, and dust during a battle are going to be a problem.

    Note: He explained that the LaWS functioned extremely well following a dust storm in theater.

  9. BobN says:

    The laser at present is just a test device for things to come. Get the aiming, tracking and maintenance right for when the power devices arrive. I expect the navy will use a reusable lensing system, much like the jockey uses on a muddy day.
    The air force wants to put the lasers on a fighter when it can, that would sure change air warfare.

    Right now it seems to me the Navy is looking for rail guns to be the immediate game changer. With exploding rounds they can counter any incoming threat and do serious damage out at 200 miles.

    The power for all this is key – LENR would really help warfare.

  10. M Simon says:

    I should add that it wonders me that Polywell Fusion reactor research was dropped by the Navy. If it works and if it could burn pB11, direct conversion from charged particles to electricity is possible. Eliminating steam plants or gas turbines with their rotational inertia would be a big thing for higher power versions of this type of weapon.

    But also remember – it is strictly a line of sight weapon.

    Also, you defeat it by sending in more projectiles than the system can handle, in a time on target attack. But that increases the cost of offense.

  11. Soronel Haetir says:

    “Functions well after a dust storm” just says the dust storm didn’t damage the thing, it doesn’t say anything about the ability to function during the actual dust storm.

  12. Larry Ledwick says:

    As you can see by the diagram in this link, the basic design is scalable, by increasing the number of lasers from the current R&D model using 6 to higher multiples as needed to address new and more difficult to defeat threats. It does not mention it in this link, but I understand from prior reading (wiki link), that those six lasers are just basic commercial welding lasers adapted to this use. The real technical challenge would be the aiming and tracking technology to keep the beam on target. Once that issue is handled it is just a matter of adding more commodity laser units to scale up to higher power levels (and shorter engagement times)

  13. philjourdan says:

    The first comment mentioned the same thing I was thinking about. The rail gun has a range now of 100 nautical miles, and they hope to increase that to 200. And at Mach 6, no plane can out fly it. So the laser seems more a defensive weapon (shoot down missiles) while the rail gun takes out the ships.

  14. Larry Ledwick says:

    I think the laser is also driven by economics, killing a $700 missile with a $40,000 or $400,000 is a prescription for failure, the bad guy can afford to swamp your defenses. At $1.00 a shot for the laser that economic equation turns around and even cheap weapons like RPG’s cost more than the shot to defeat them. (assuming you can recognize, track and acquire them in the short flight time from a small fast boat like the Iranians have played with in their swarm boat tactics)

  15. Adam Gallon says:

    And us British are giggling away at the thought of a ship being called the Ponce!

  16. DocMartyn says:

    “Larry Ledwick says:
    7 February 2015 at 11:51 pm
    With Russian supercavitating torpedoes with a top speed of 200 knots”

    Can we be sensible for once?
    What sensors can a supercavitating torpedo traveling at 200 knots have? None what so ever.
    Will someone at the receiving end of a supercavitating torpedo hear it coming and then, perchance, maneuver? Yes
    Will the supercavitating torpedo traveling at 200 knots know of its targets maneuver? No.
    Even if it knew the target had changed course, would a supercavitating torpedo traveling at 200 knots be able to make a following turn? No.

    Why do Western nation invest so much in highly complex torpedo’s which very quietly stalk their pray and only use high speed at the end of an attack run? Because they don’t want anyone to know where the platform the torpedo was launched was at the firing time.
    Why don’t less technologically advanced nations build computerized guidance systems that can stealthy stalk targets? Because they can’t
    Do very fast, but very dumb, noisy and unguided systems have a good track record as weapons of naval warfare? No.

    “Chinese hypersonic anti-ship missiles coming on line”

    How, pray, will the Chinese know where a ship, or even a carrier battle group is, before they launch their hypersonic missile? They can’t
    Will the members of the US navy have some means, like radar or IR return, to observe these ‘hypersonic’ missiles? Yes
    Are hypersonic missiles relatively easy to spot? Yes

  17. agesilaus says:

    I understand that those super cavitating torps were not steerable. So the lack of sensors probably didn’t matter. I haven’t heard anything about them for years. Wasn’t a propellant fire on one of those blamed for the Russian sub disaster?

    As for hypersonic missiles. I just read about the Lockheed D-21 drone, apparently derived from the A-12 recon plane. They flew a number of these over the Loc Noor test site during the 1960-70s. The never could work out the film return with them and finally gave up. They were Ram Jets.

  18. DocMartyn says:

    The Kursk had kerosene/hydrogen peroxide motors. The peroxide was >35%, Drip on copper, at the end of a wire, and you get heat and O2. At high O2 warm plastic burns, as in the Apollo capsule fires. Once you have a fire you heat the kerosene and hydrogen peroxide until it goes boom.

    The biggest problem with laser weapons is that any laser weapons system is going to be obsolete before deployment. All the technologies to are ready and fairly mature, they just need to be combined in the right way. The US military are aware of the Italian Airforce problem. The Italians had the smallest industrial base in the run up to WWII and so they needed to mobilize first. They set their production for aircraft before anyone else and so started the war with the finest biplanes ever built. Nearly everyone else waited while for the technology for all metal monoplanes was ready and then crash built. The British went for a half-way house, the metal/fabric Hawker Hurricane, which was almost as good as the all metal fighters but used traditional building techniques and sunk costs, and the top of the line Supermarine Spitfire which would be as modern as possible, have upgrade potential, but not might be ready in numbers or combat ready by wars start.
    As it happened, the Hurricane was a good enough stop-gap, and was useful in secondary roles upto the end of WWII, the Spitfire was late and hit maximum production in time for the BoB, although only with machine guns as the cannon equipped ones didn’t work until just after.

    Laser weapons need a lot of power and the very, very, very stupid specifications for the littoral combat ship demanding a minimum 40 knot top speed may turn this execrable ship concept* into a fine weapons system. The Hotel power you can get by running at 33 knot means you could run a decent radar and laser system.

    *Anyone who wonders why a 40 knot stealth platform is a stupid idea should look at the wake and a radar reflecting spray that comes out of the back of a speed boat. They can run a LCS with almost no radar return, but the spray out back lights up like a supertanker.

  19. BobN says:

    The Israelis are adding a laser capability to their iron Dome. Presently they are shooting down $1000 rockets with their $60000 rocket and going broke doing it. The presently look to see where the rocket will land and if its not a populated area they let the shot go through. A laser at $1 will greatly change the cost structure and allow them to only use the missiles on larger incoming objects. They are very close to deployment last I read.

    The navy has a torpedo that can loiter for weeks. It swims like a fish and is next to undetectable. The device is speculated to drop off the exterior and by a hyper torpedo for short distances. They have also mentioned 200 mile capabilities, but not sure how that ties in.

  20. gallopingcamel says:

    Forty years ago I heard a rumor about a laser weapon being tested at Kirtland AFB that could make a hole in a missile at 10 km range. This triggered by BS detector so I remained skeptical until I saw the prototype at the AVCO research lab in Boston. It was a TEA laser with two room size PFNs (pulse forming networks). Thanks to a low “Wall Plug” efficiency it was expensive to build and to run which might explain why it was never deployed.

    Fiber lasers can have excellent wall-plug efficiency making them affordable for applications that require high power.

  21. Soronel Haetir says:

    DocMartyn ,

    And there is at least some evidence that radar geared toward turbulence can be used to spot stealth aircraft: , I know that I’ve seen several such stories over the last couple decades, the USAF of course talks them down but I would expect the wake to be nearly impossible to get rid of unlike hot exhaust simply because air going over the upper and lower surfaces of the wings is the entire basis of aerodynamic flight.

  22. Larry Ledwick says:

    There are several methods which conceivably will allow an advanced nation to see through stealth. Stealth is based on the assumption that the radar transmitter and receiver are co-located so the primary function of stealth is to ensure that what little reflection there is, goes anywhere but back to the same vector that it arrived on. The simple solution to that, is so called bistatic radar where the sending antenna and the receiver are not at the same place. There is suspicion that this method was used in Bosnia when one of our F-117’s were shot down.

    The other option is to over power stealth with an extremely strong signal that makes the reflection detectable.

    There have been some sources that assert that lower frequency radars can detect stealth aircraft but just not as precisely as high frequency radars. Then you have the option of good old fashioned flak being used to saturate a box you know the aircraft will need to fly through or firing multiple IR missiles hoping one of them can acquire the engine heat.

    A third option was proposed that would use a different methodology of “pinging” the aircraft with a very powerful single pulse and listening for the electromagnetic ringing of the airframe, and not the reflection. Like all things any conductive object will ring at some characteristic frequency when excited by a powerful pulse, just like hitting a tin can with a stick will give a characteristic sound unique to that can size and shape.

    Last of all stealth technology was based on a paper published by a Russian. At the time the Soviets did not pay much attention to it when it came out, and did not have the computing power to solve the equations in a real world aircraft. It is likely that both those constraints are no longer a problem. They surely are interested in it, and have had access to the fragments of a downed F-117 and obviously have much more powerful computers available today than they did in the 1960’s when the concept was first proposed.

    (Oxcart first flew in 1962)

    It is very probable that stealth is now well understood technology by all the major advanced industrial nations and they have had 20+ years to work out alternative methods of detection, or to steal the technology via industrial espionage (see China J-12)

  23. agesilaus says:

    I have heard claims that stealth aircraft might be detected by the ‘hole’ they make in the ambient radio background. That background is radio broadcasts, cell phone signals, TV signals and so on. There was some talk about this being the technique used in Bosnia but I haven’t seen any confirmation or even much recent talk about this ‘method’. Either it doesn’t work or it does and the military pulled the secrecy screen down over it.

  24. BobN says:

    The newer jets are able to detect the areas that are safest to fly and avoid the main radar domes of operation. They presently fight by launching bombs with wings that can penetrate the dome and take out the radar allowing them to enter under safer conditions. The military has drones that fool the radar as to what type of craft is coming at it. A cargo plane can drop a whole bunch of these to over whelm the system.

    The next generation of predator drone is being advertised has having on board lasers to shoot down missiles coming at it. A slow drone might be very hard to destroy in the future.

  25. Kelvin Vaughan says:

    I’ve just designed a concave shiny ship.

  26. bobc2010 says:

    ” The lasers are cute but I would not want the job of keeping their optics clean in an ocean going environment, not to mention issues like heavy fog and rain scattering and attenuation of the beam.”

    Shouldn’t be hard to keep the windows clear — 15 years ago a small (6 person) company I worked for built a sensitive laser instrument which worked unattended on top of Mt Washington all winter. That’s where you see pictures of downwind frost layers several feet thick on everything (and wind > 100 mph). How did we keep the optical windows clear? We made them of sapphire and heated them to well above the boiling point of water. (Artificial sapphire is actually fairly inexpensive.) The Army Cold Regions Lab didn’t like us pulling 200+ watts just for the windows, but they did like the fact that it keep going all winter while lots of other stuff shut down.

    To keep shipboard optical windows clear I would first try a combination of heat and high-speed air curtain. With a 30Kw laser, you would have all the power you could use without seriously affecting the power budget..

    The first order solution to the other problems is more beam power. At some power level, the fog and rain simply disappear from the beam. (There are more clever methods that will be used as well.)

  27. Pouncer says:

    Is the added demand on naval generators for electric weapons (rail guns or lasers) in addition to propulsion and life support going to require bigger nuclear reactors on board? Or do we assume that the same size reactor and generator will do, perhaps with the ship standing still (and with power off to the kitchen, plumbing and rec-room demands) switching the power from one load to the other as needed?

    If a new and bigger power plant is needed, are we looking at buy opportunities for companies like Bechtel and Babcock&Wilcox?

    I assume current tech (presumably plutonium cores from the same ol’ suppliers as named above)
    could be goosed to provide bigger versions of the stuff the Navy already understands. But is the process at all prone to attempt a leapfrog try for a new, perhaps thorium, core or some other power provision system that would be harder for late-coming adversaries to copy? If so, what companies would be candidates for such defense contracts?

  28. agesilaus says:

    So far as I know Bechtel has nothing to do with naval reactors. GE and Westinghouse were the primary companies involved. Westinghouse has been sold to Siemans I believe. Navy reactors use weapons grade Uranium (90% plus/minus U-235), civilian reactors use slightly enriched uranium (less than 10% U-235). Plutonium is not a usable fuel for Naval Reactors. Thorium reactors don’t have any properties that would make them more suitable for Naval use that I’m aware of. Their attraction is their ability not to produce material that could be used in a weapon but as I pointed out Naval reactors use weapons grade uranium already.

    And lastly the only surface ships that use nuclear power in the USN are carriers. The Long Beach, a nuclear powered cruiser, has been sent to the scrap yard long ago. Those aren’t the target of these weapon systems.

  29. p.g.sharrow says:

    Be sure ti read this article about the latest on the Navy Rail Gun:
    The comments by msfred are even better then the write up. Be sure to read them.
    As to the electrical load on the shipboard powerplants. The laser is not a big thing, even at 10 times present size. The Rail Gun may be a bridge too far for many reasons. The power demand of it is just one problem among many to be solved before this thing is ready for prime time. pg.

  30. Sounds like a job for smoke and mirrors.

  31. E.M.Smith says:


    Per rail guns: Thanks for mentioning that. I’d thought of a method for protecting ships from the laser, but didn’t want to say anything about it since it would compromise our use of the weapon on large ships… but since we have “other means” for large ships, and rail guns Real Soon Now, and the method doesn’t work on small targets… I guess it’s OK to mention it.

    Put a large water intake and pump on the ship. Put a ring of pipes around the ship that make a ‘water fall’ off the surface of the hull. Now a laser must heat / evaporate a mass of water and get the steam out of the way (not deforming or defocusing the beam) very rapidly, before more water flows in to replace it… (at high enough power, the steam pressure will stop more water flowing in, but…) Think of it as an ablative heat shield with constant replacement.

    Now this will be workable on very large ships (where, thanks to mass going as the cube of linear while surface goes as the square) they can have a very very large pump / water intake and can carry the weight of the pipes. Not going to work on small boats, or on things in the air (that are the major target of this weapon). Not sure where the limit is that it would start to work. Frankly, not even sure it won’t take too thick a wall of water to even work on a carrier scale ship… and likely easier to just do counter-battery fire and fry the attacking laser mount…

    Likely one could make a counter weapon to this defense, with a missile that delivers a load of small ‘grenade’ like bombs that are neutral buoyant and seek out the water intake, to blow holes in the grid and then take out the pumps… and then a counter to THEM would be… ;-)

    At any rate, a rail gun projectile would just blow right through a 3 inch thick waterfall anyway ;-)


    Cloaking device? Hmmm…. like Disney projecting images onto a water mist… so put a waterfall next to the ‘important bits’ and paint an image of a ship on mist via the towed array behind the real ship… that now looks like a swell…


    May not cure the spiritual ills, but sure can be fun to “blow stuff up” ;-) (Yes, I’ve done it…)


    The first operational model is typically never the final production one. That doesn’t mean it is not operational. They are planning a 100 to 150 kW sized production type. I’d still not want to be in front of this one on a rubber boat, flying a small kamikaze plane, or using a drone…

    Per dirty lenses… I have a distant memory of some other high power laser system… it was ‘cleaned’ by turning it on… POOF! and the dirt is gone… If it can burn through metal I think some dirt is not going to hang around long.

    Probably need to replace that lens cover “once per battle” though, when it’s over…

    @Larry Ledwick:

    Hypersonics is fine, but I think “speed of light” might be faster… and maybe part of why they want one.


    I think the idea is “yet another weapon”. So on days where you can’t see shit, you use those nice cannon and radar. On days where it’s more clear sky, and the little rubber boat brigade is headed your way, you fry one or two for $2 and the rest get the idea… When all else fails, you fire off that $Million Missile and do the paperwork for a new one…


    It was a test device, now it is an operational device. It has enough killing power to be usable, so is operational. Maybe only the Iranian Rubber Boat Brigade and cutting the ‘cost per missile killed’ from $Million to $10; but that’s a very valuable operational role. I’d be much happier cruising in the Persian Gulf with one of those ready to go.

    @BobN & M. Simon:

    At 35 kW, it takes the same power as made by my car motor. At 150 kW, it would take a larger engine, but still smaller than a train locomotive. Something small enough to disappear in a large ship engine room where Diesels can be the size of houses… While a fusion or fission power source would be nice to have, it isn’t even remotely needed.

    See picture here:

    “It weighs over 2,300 tonnes and its largest 14-cylinder version produces 80,080 kW of power”

    So you could run 800 of the 100 kW versions (well, likely closer to 600 of them after generator losses…)

    Line Of Sight works well for things out to about 100 miles. I’m fine with that as a defensive perimeter where ships, plains, and incoming missiles get shot down.

    @Hypersonic missiles and fast torps:

    Every tool has a time and a place, and sometimes is invaluable, sometimes useless. Hypersonic is great for getting past slow defenses, not so useful for stealth or for speeding past lasers. Simply demonstrating one causes the opponent to spend a lot of money and think time on defenses.

    Personally, I’d make a hypersonic missile or a supercavitating torpedo just to mess with the other guy. The hypersonic will be hard to shoot down with conventional defenses, but now we have unconventional laser defense. The supercavitating would be a neat gizmo, especially if fast enough, since the target can not change position much during the travel time (so don’t need a hunter torp, just a ‘go there’ one…) Personally, I’d make one that could be stealth launched, then sit, track, and wait while I snuck away. When ready, fire up and do the kill shot. Worst case it gets folks looking for a ‘launch’ from where you ain’t no more…


    Ah, yes, the Italian Air Force Problem… they jumped on the Jet Age wagon with a large piston engine that was used as the compressor for the jet turbine…

    The Caproni Campini N.1, also known as the C.C.2, was an experimental aircraft built by the Italian aircraft manufacturer Caproni. The N.1 was powered by a motorjet, a type of jet engine that powers the compressor using a conventional aircraft engine. The N.1 first flew in 1940, and as news of the Heinkel He 178’s flight in 1939 had not yet been made public, the FAI listed the N.1 as the first successful jet-powered aircraft. The N.1 was the only model in the series.
    As designed by Campini, the aircraft did not have a jet engine in the sense that we know them today. Rather, a conventional 900 hp (670 kW) Isotta Fraschini L.121 RC.40 12-cylinder liquid-cooled piston engine was used to drive a three-stage variable-incidence compressor, which forced air into a combustion chamber where it was mixed with fuel and ignited. The exhaust produced by this combustion was to drive the aircraft forward. Campini called this configuration a “thermojet,” but the term “motorjet” is in common usage today. It has also been described as a ducted fan.

    The relatively small duct resulted in low mass flow, and thus low propulsive efficiency. In modern designs this is offset through high overall pressure ratios, but the N.1 had a low pressure ratio and thus low thermal efficiency as well. As a result, the engine had relatively low thrust, about 1,550 lbf, and very poor fuel economy.
    Campini turned to the Caproni aircraft factory to help build the prototypes, and two aircraft and a non-flying ground testbed were eventually constructed. The first flight from Caproni’s Taliedo factory took place on 27 August 1940 with test pilot Mario De Bernardi at the controls. He reported reaching 225 mph at “barely half throttle”. De Bernardi would do most of the flying of the N.1 As the August 1939 flight of the Heinkel He 178 V1 was still unknown at this time, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale recognized this at the time as the first successful flight by a jet aeroplane.

    On 30 November 1941 an N.1 flew from Milan’s Linate Airport over Pisa and then landed at Rome’s Guidonia Airport. The pilots, De Bernardi and Giovanni Pedace, were met by Benito Mussolini, as well many members of the press and aeronautical establishment. The 320 mile flight was promoted as the first cross-country flight by a jet aircraft, as well as the first jet-mail delivery. However, during the flight the combustion chamber was never operated in order to save fuel, thus the aircraft used the propulsion given by the ducted fan more than the propulsion given by the exhaust gasses.

    Yes, a jet engine, but too inefficient to actually use the jet part and more effective ignoring that and just using the piston / compressor to drive the ducted fan… First, in a ‘kind a sorta’ way…


    They’ve been working on combat lasers a long time. IMHO, they likely had operational capable ones about 15 to 20 years back, but kept it under wraps as nobody else could do it yet. Now that anyone can strap together some industrial welders, it’s time to make it “suddenly operational” and accept the consequences.

    @Soronel Haetir & Larry Ledwick:

    My “idea” for spotting stealth is a look down radar from high altitude / space. It “memorizes” what is supposed to be there in terms of ground reflection. Then just look for the moving hole in what is “supposed to be”…

    And that “radiate one way, watch from elsewhere” ought to work for ground stations. Likely a ‘look up’ or even a ‘look sideways’ that also looks for the moving hole could also be made.

    Personally, I could see a role for a ‘laser painting’ detector that scans the sky with very very rapid pulses of low power. There ought to be some frequency at which the ‘black’ of stealth is not so black; especially when briefly heated. During real battle, doing it with a kW or three might also be ‘interesting’ ;-)


    A Very Small corner reflector can make even a tiny drone look like a giant stealthy aircraft up close. I suspect there’s also a coming role for “steerable chaff” via small rocket powered corner reflector equipped devices. Think model rocket sized. What does your air defense do when confronted by 1000 attacking “planes” doing a few hundred miles an hour for a dozen minutes? It goes nuts… Each the size of a model / toy rocket…

    @Kelvin Vaughn:

    Hopefully with a sprinkler on top ;-)


    I can hear it now…

    “More Power, har har har, MORE POWER!!!” just as the snow starts falling….


    Yes, they want more power, but it is small change compared to the propulsion demand, so not that hard to meet. Retrofit a bigger alternator, or add a secondary generator. And maybe a big capacitor or two…

    @Bernd Felsche:

    Groaann!!! (But a good one!)

  32. agesilaus says:

    As for the water spray idea, so far as I know most larger naval vessels already have a water washdown system used to wash off NBR material that lands on the hull. I suspect generating the right type of smoke would be more effective. Lasers are a long long way from producing enough power to be useful against large vessels tho. Probably would have to be up in the giga Joule region as a guess and these current lasers are in the low mega Joule region.

    As for keeping dirt/salt of the laser optics, why expose them to that environment. They could easily install a metal shutter at the end of the tube used to house the laser. Have it snap open a few milliseconds before firing the laser and close right after the firing was over.

    I read an article that enumerated some of the problems with current rail guns:

    1) The equipment is placed under tremendous stress when accelerating the projectiles from zero to 4 or 5 km/sec in 20 or 30 feet. Right now they will not last without being rebuilt after a relatively short sets of firings. Not like a naval gun which fire a 1000 or more shots a day and do it day after day on occasion.

    2) Rail guns are fired at a high angle in order to minimize passing thru the atmosphere. Air slows the projectiles down quickly. Thus a target at middle distance, 50,000 yard say would be shot at by almost aiming straight up to minimize drag. The projectile can take over 5 minutes to arrive on target. Worthless for anything that moves.

    3) The projectiles are not explosive and depend on kinetic energy to destroy the target. Firing at a body of troops would make a 155mm hole in the ground and unless someone was really unlucky wouldn’t kill very many of the troops. Or any other distributed target. A standard 155 artillery shell can carry all sorts of warheads to deal with troops or other distributed targets.

  33. Larry Ledwick says:

    Regarding the water curtain laser defense:

    The water spray defense would be trivial to use, in the 1960’s and 1970’s US Navy ships had a top side “wash down system” of sprinklers to wash off chemical, biological or radiological contamination. I presume the capability still is in place. It basically tapped off the fire fighting ring main on the ship so it had plenty of pumping capacity and redundancy built in, not to mention an unlimited water supply.

    The concept of screening infrared with water spray is already used regularly in Navy fire fighting. The fire fighter on the hose nozzle is protected by the #2 man in line holding a high velocity fog nozzle right in front of your forehead as you attack the fire.

    The water fog totally kills the radiant heat of the flames and also washes the soot and smoke out of the air. If the fog man failed to keep the fog nozzle right in front of you when you were on the nozzle the radiant heat from the flames will hit you like a hammer. It makes a huge difference.

    The only limitation I see to using the wash down system would be charging the system and getting the spray fully developed rapidly enough to defeat the laser pulse. (you would also need a detector system that instantly detected the laser and activated the fog nozzles in the right sector of the ship.

  34. p.g.sharrow says:

    agesilaus says:
    17 February 2015 at 9:50 pm
    “Not like a naval gun which fire a 1000 or more shots a day and do it day after day on occasion.”

    Not really the case. IIRC The 16 inch gun barrels on the New Jersey wore out rather quickly. After every shot, compensation for wear was needed for calculating the next shot. After 250 shots they needed reballeling. Don’t recall the wear rate of the 5 inch – 45 rapid fire.

    The rail gun has a high wear rate and the recoil is every bit as large as a comparable propellant gun. It does have about 4 times the range and does not require a very dangerous “powder magazine” pg

  35. E.M.Smith says:


    “2) Rail guns are fired at a high angle in order to minimize passing thru the atmosphere. Air slows the projectiles down quickly. Thus a target at middle distance, 50,000 yard say would be shot at by almost aiming straight up to minimize drag. The projectile can take over 5 minutes to arrive on target. Worthless for anything that moves. ”

    Um, I make 50,000 yards as 50k/1760 = 28 miles. Atmosphere is about 50 miles deep. so…

    Why would you send a projectile up 30 to 50 miles, to come back down through another 30 to 50 miles of air, while going 28 miles sidways through thin air, for a total of between about 100 and 130 miles, through air and against gravity, instead of sending it through 28 miles of air?

    Something seems amiss in your example…

    And not at all worthless for ‘anything that moves’ if it is moving in a predictable path, or the projectile has terminal guidance (as many of our modern shells now have / are getting ). The “smart projectile” is real already.

    And per #3:

    It seems to me that the rail gun is for one use, while area weapons are for a different use. I would not expect a ship to have only a rail gun. (Though I could see losing the powder guns in favor of a combination of lasers, cruise missiles, drones, air cover, etc.) Use the rail gun to hole your competition and sink them, then bring in the landing ships and carriers…

  36. omanuel says:

    My concern is world leaders may be tempted to start a “false flag” war to stay in power after the Climategate debate exposed the fraudulent basis [1] of:

    1. Standard climate models
    2. Standard nuclear model
    3. Standard solar model
    4. Big Bang cosmology


    1. “Solar Energy”

  37. Larry Ledwick says:

    As you get smarter projectiles you also introduce the possibility of trajectory shaping when the projectile uses a non-ballistic trajectory. For example launch at a 30 degree angle until it gets to 30,000 feet travel level for 80% of the distance to the target then dive into the target in a near vertical approach. Best compromise of minimized energy loss due to air drag, time on target and impact angle most likely to penetrate the target.

    Modern artillery already uses fuming base projectiles :

    To cut drag (sort of like a very low impulse rocket motor that just nullifies base drag), Why can’t rail guns accelerate the projectile up to high velocity then use a small lightweight sustainer motor to preserve energy in flight.

    If they can perfect a miniature scram jet propulsion to pair with the rail gun you could get the best of both worlds. Sustain velocity with a scram jet so you only have to carry fuel and utilize free air for the oxygen of combustion, thrust vectoring to assist with shaped trajectory and optimum approach angle to target, minimal fire hazard compared to explosive warheads, but not quite as good as inert kinetic penetrator.

    I think the rail gun is too early in its development to really evaluate its best tactical use. It would be a great stand off weapon allowing rapid time on target hits at extreme range at a fraction of the cost of missiles. May not be suitable to median range targets due to air drag unless they come up with ways to reduce energy loss in flight over moderate distance direct fire attacks. Some of the new artillery smart projectiles can approach the target from something like 18 degrees off the true azimuth to target. Good for correcting azimuth errors in flight or to spoof the target regarding exactly where the fire is coming from. With highly maneuverable projectiles you could even impact the target from the opposite side by shooting over the target and turning back into it during the dive phase of a shaped trajectory.

  38. agesilaus says:

    Air density and thus drag decreases rapidly with increasing altitude. I didn’t look this up so don’t hold me to it, but I believe that 90% of the atmosphere (meaning air molecules) is below 10,000 ft. So by shooting it horizontally you are shooting thru 50 miles of the densest air, by shooting at a high angle you minimize that. Most of the projectiles flight time is in the stratosphere or above.

    This is the same reason that aircraft fly at 30,000-40,000 ft when they can to minimize drag and fuel use.

  39. BobN says:

    I have been told that injecting gas in order to reduce base bleed has become almost a non issue as the newer shells have pop out rudders (wings) that adjust the shell in flight so the inaccuracy of the base bleed is dialed out. They have shells that can now go around a hill or object through flight alterations. I have to admit I don’t know the means of the control on these shells, will have to research some day.

  40. BobN says:

    There is talk the next generation air to air missiles will be hyper speeds and will be based on scram jet technology. They are looking at mach 10 or better. The SR72 is reported to be mach 6, but a lot of rumors put it higher.

  41. p.g.sharrow says:

    On It’s last flight from California to the Air force museum on the east coast an SR-71 refueled over the Pacific and crossed the coast at Long Beach and then the Virginia coast 52 minuets later. I believe that is a bit more then Mach 6! pg

  42. E.M.Smith says:


    I get about 2800 miles (based on various drives, so by air might be less) and .8666 of an hour for about 3230 mph. The speed of sound changes with altitude, and that isn’t know to me, but call it about 600 mph and you get Mach 5.38 (via .3230 / 600 ). A Mach 6 guess is roughly inside the error bands of those swags…

    I’d make it “about Mach 6” but I guess it might be “a bit more” if speed of sound guess or distance guess are off.

  43. BobN says:

    Here is an interesting link relating to the power needs of the Navy for Lasers and Rail guns.
    The comments are interesting.

  44. p.g.sharrow says:

    @EMSmith ; thank you for cleaning up my comment. I don’t remember the altitude that the speed run was conducted. It was a deliberate speed run conducted by the crew on their plane’s last flight. Certainly a bit faster then the Mach +3 “name plate” speed of the Black Bird. pg

  45. agesilaus says:

    IIRC there is a description of that flight by the pilot up on the net. You can probably find it. I recall it was a run over Libya.

  46. Jason Calley says:

    Regarding the SR71, I once had a teacher (proprietary computer stuff) who had been an electronics tech in the Air Force. He claimed that he had done some repair work inside the cockpit of an SR71 and in the process had glimpsed the air speed indicator. “The gauge was labeled in knots up to 2,500 (IIRC) but after that it just showed Mach numbers up to Mach 7!” True? He said it was…

    Amazing piece of machinery! Designed with slide rules and built a half century ago!

  47. E.M.Smith says:

    @Jason Calley:

    Well… the above calculation showed about Mach 5-6 as normal fast cruise, so you would want a number or two above that for headroom in a dive ;-)


    That flight over Libya was a different one. Saw an interview with the pilot and he said they opened up the throttles and had the Mach number go past 3, then left the missiles behind. Carefully avoiding saying how much past…

    The final record flight was from California ( As a kid, our farm town was about 15 miles off the end of the runway for Beale AFB and we were treated to many a take off / landing run of the SR-71 overhead… at dusk one night there was a beautiful “chain of pearls” blue flame out the back of one… sigh… ) and they were sending one to be retired to a museum ‘back east’. The pilot got the OK to open it up and set a new, final, speed record. To the best of my knowledge, that speed has not been publicly bested by any air breathing plane. (Shuttle is something like Mach 14 on entry, so it’s a faster air frame, but not powered on decent… though an existence proof that we have Mach 14 air frames… Then we have an experimental hypersonic test bed that has hit something like Mach 10, and is air breating, but IIRC it is rocket boosted on launch).

    At any rate, it made it coast to coast in under an hour.

    Wish I’d been there at take off and cook out…

    At an air show at Beale we got to see one take off from a couple of hundred yards away. They take off part empty and only have enough fuel to get up (and make an emergency return if needed) then get to a tanker and fill up the tanks. At take off they are pitched up at a crazy angle of attack. Awesome sight. (though I like them at speed at dusk better… In the early days sonic booms were OK and it was incredible to hear the boom, and took a while to learn to look to the OTHER side of the sky as that was where the plane was at. Boom north, look south… Later they had to be subsonic over land and it was a lot less fun…)


    What clean up? Looks fine to me…

  48. Jason Calley says:

    The SR71s really are fascinating. I have wondered whether anyone ever tried fitting some liquid oxygen tanks onboard. The idea of bleeding a little extra O2 into the engine intakes seems like a straightforward way to goose up high altitude performance.

  49. Larry Ledwick says:

    Lots of interesting SR-71 stories. Once here in Colorado I heard a sonic boom (very unusual due to restrictions) and later that night there were reports of sonic booms heard all over northern Colorado and into Wyoming. The news just reported that a military jet had had some sort of in flight emergency and had created the sonic boom. From the news reports you could get a pretty good idea of the ground track when he was supersonic and according to my calculations he did a hard U turn at high speed and the 180 degree turn took 2 states to accomplish on his effort to get back to Edwards or where ever he was headed for the flight emergency.

    (secondary to that was the discovery in California that high supersonic aircraft ground tracks and true speed over ground could be reconstructed from seismic information as the boom was recorded along the ground track.)

    In one of my SR-71 books they mention that during Vietnam some of the SR-71 pilots would intentionally dump fuel over north Vietnam to create a contrail to make sure they knew where they were then they would fire wall the throttle and run off an leave the SAM missiles in their dust. They never did lose a plane to ground fire but did lose a few due to in flight accidents. Apparently under certain conditions the plane would go into a violent pitch up at high speed which was fatal to the airframe at those speeds.

    They also had a problem with what they called and “unstart” on one of the engines. To control airspeed inside the engine and to take advantage of the supersonic shockwave they engines had a movable airspike in the nacelle which would be positioned to place the shock wave just inside the air opening. This heated, compressed and slowed the air as it entered the engine, which greatly improved performance. They actually got better fuel mileage the faster they went. If they were low on fuel they would accelerate to save fuel.

    Under some circumstances that air spike would not maintain the right location and the sonic shock wave would pop out of the air intake which would kill performance on that engine (this was an unstart) and it would violently yaw the aircraft so hard it would slam the pilots helmet against the cockpit and ring his bell pretty good.

  50. E.M.Smith says:

    @Jason Calley:

    Um, LOX is a Bad Idea… It got to about 600 F at the windshield and the pilots needed heavy active cooling in their suits to not cook in the cockpit-oven… and that was a cooler part of the plane. Now think of pure O2 at those temps near flammable materials and red hot metals…

    At Mach 3 there’s plenty of O2 being rammed into the front of the engines. The major problem is not O2, but slowing the ram air flow down enough to get a fuel burn to stabilize in the engine and not blow out the back… velocity not lack of O2. Also the heat stresses are already at the material limits. Heating the ending more with added O2 would likely break it.

    I might accept a bit of Lox / fuel injection into an afterburner section where it’s already on the way out and the excess heat gets dumped as very hot exhaust… if you can find a way to keep the LOX as LOX (i.e. cold) until needed…

    @Larry Ledwick:

    Interesting stories… The fuel was a very special high temp tolerant fuel and was used to cool parts of the air frame in flight as they heated it up enough to burn well… I imagine they didn’t dump too much of it, just enough ;-)

    The whole airplane was a flying paradox in many ways. No straight lines anywhere. Even the engines are curved. Designed to barely get off the ground and soft of maybe fly at low hundreds of MPH, but work really really well at Mach 2+; everything else being ‘just enough to function and get into the air’… Standard construction didn’t work, so Kelly Johnson invented whole new manufacturing methods. The list of “firsts” is long, including all that Titanium even for major structural members back when folks were having trouble just machining a single bolt.

    Sigh. I really wish they had kept a couple flying just to remind folks that nothing else comes close, even now. (At least, nothing public…)

  51. p.g.sharrow says:

    Lockeed Martin tests their proposed laser weapon. Blasts hole in pickup truck and engine block in 1 second at 1 mile range. 30 Kw fiber bundle laser:
    more toys. pg

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