The US military is increasingly looking to use lasers on the battlefield, and a new report suggests that the Navy is planning to equip an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer with a HELIOS laser defense system in 2021.
The Navy’s director of surface warfare, Rear Admiral Ron Boxall, told Defense News that the service is planning to install the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance system on the USS Preble by 2021. It will replace an existing defensive platform called the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) system, which was designed to intercept and destroy incoming missiles and other threats before they reach a ship.
The Navy began testing a precursor laser system, the AN/SEQ-3, back in 2013 as a proof-of-concept that could be used against small drones or boats that was later put into operation onboard the USS Ponce from 2014 until the ship was decommissioned last year. The Navy awarded a $150 million contract to Lockheed Martin to design, build, and deliver a successor system by 2020 — two laser systems, one of which would be installed onboard a ship, while the other would be used for testing at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Lockheed Martin is expected to deliver the system sometime next year.
HELIOS is a close-in defense system that is designed to protect against a variety of threats, such as small boats, drones, and missiles. The system is a 60-kilowatt laser that could eventually go up to 150 kilowatts and would tie directly into a ship’s power source. Lockheed Martin says that it won’t need to bring along “extra energy magazines or batteries onto the ship. It fits within the ship’s power.” The system will also connect to the existing Aegis Combat System, an automated system that uses a ship’s onboard radar to guide weapons to their targets. With that in mind, Boxall noted that the system could be more than just a weapon: it can also feed data back to Aegis. “A lot of people think that lasers are just something that shoots but lasers are also a very good sensor. As you get closer to a radar, your radar gets worse. As you get closer to a laser, it gets better,” he said.
Other branches of the military have also been working to develop their own laser systems. The US Air Force recently conducted a successful test with a system called the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD), which it used to shoot down several missiles in flight. Laser systems are appealing for a couple of reasons: they can hit a target instantly, and they won’t be constrained by a limited magazine. There are some drawbacks, however. Laser systems can only engage a single target at a time, and analysts say that even as ships are equipped with lasers, they will still likely continue to carry missile defense systems for the time being.