The Buzz

The US Navy Is Building Precision Laser Weapons

The U.S. Navy has awarded Boeing a $29.5 million contract to build a prototype of a system that will provide the service with precision-guided laser weapons.

The company announced the contract in a press release on Tuesday. The statement said in part that, “Boeing will begin to design a prototype High Power Beam Control Subsystem (HP BCSS) that’s compatible with High Energy Lasers (HEL) based on solid-state laser (SSL) technology.”

The contract was awarded as part of the Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program, which aims to “develop and mature high-energy laser technologies into a prototypical weapon system for use and installation on the Navy’s surface combatants.”

Boeing said in the press release that “the resulting beam control system will focus and hold a laser on a moving aimpoint long enough to disable the target. Doing that with a ship-based laser is particularly challenging, given the maritime environment and constant movement of an at-sea vessel.”

The U.S. military has been investing in laser and directed-energy technologies since the 1960s, but it’s only been in the last few years that rapid progress has been made. Notably, in 2009, the U.S. Navy's Laser Weapon System (LaWS) Program first successful tracked and destroyed an unmanned aerial vehicle while at sea. The LaWS program continued to be tested over the next five years and was declared operational and ready for use at the end of 2014. It is currently deployed on the USS Ponce Afloat Forward Staging Base.

Similarly, in April 2011, ONR and its industry partner, Northrop Grumman, successfully tested a solid-state, high-energy laser (HEL) at sea. During that test, a surface ship used the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) to eliminate a small boat.

Lasers are almost certain to play a large part in protecting the Navy’s surface fleet in the future as they offer a number of major advantages over traditional kinetic weapons. Perhaps most importantly, lasers are a fraction of the cost of kinetic weapons. Indeed, a laser costs roughly a dollar to fire while the Navy’s medium and long-range interceptors cost several millions of dollars per missile. This creates an opportunity to overcome the mathematics that has long been the Achilles’ heel of missile defense.

Equally important, whereas surface vessels can only carry a very limited number of interceptors to defend themselves against enemy missiles, lasers would give ships a nearly unlimited magazine capacity. This is particularly crucial at a time when countries like China are building formidable anti-ship missile arsenals. In addition, by freeing up space normally reserved for interceptors, lasers would greatly increase the offensive capability of America’s surface vessels.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy