The U.S. Navy is arming its destroyers with a high-powered, long-range laser weapon.
The High-Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-Dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) is now being integrated onto the USS Preble, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. HELIOS is engineered to surveil, track, and destroy targets from an integrated ship system that includes advanced radar, fire control technology, and targeting sensors.
“(HELIOS) brings a unique ability to interact with the combat system as we work toward what lasers do in the fleet,” Capt. Jason Hall, Program Manager, Naval Sea Systems Command, said at the 2022 Surface Navy Association Symposium.
Connecting HELIOS’ fire control with the ship’s Aegis Radar Combat System, used for missile defense, enables a combined system to gather surveillance data from the radar while preparing to destroy the targets.
This enables some new mission possibilities for the laser weapon, such as an ability using the laser to obscure an adversary’s optical sensors. Interfering with optical sensors could help to defend against attacks from aircraft or anti-ship missiles.
The importance of combined sensing and shooting was identified in a 2003 essay in the Journal of Directed Energy titled “High Energy Laser Weapons for the Fleet,” written by Roger D. McGinnis and Alfred Skolnick.
“Being able to visually identify a target from imagery at the engagement range of the weapon is a significant improvement over conventional weapons systems,” the authors write.
Lasers are also being developed for ballistic missile defense. This role would nicely complement ship-fired interceptors such as the SM-3. Department of Defense officials explain that even if laser weapons are not yet strong enough to destroy an intercontinental ballistic missile during its flight beyond the earth’s atmosphere, laser weapons might be able to help with targeting or identification. Using lasers as sensors could help interceptor missiles target and destroy approaching ballistic missiles.
Ship-based lasers are also capable of being scaled to adjust to specific threats. This capability brings new dimensions to maritime defense, McGinnis and Skolnick write.
“Using proportional kill intensity ranging from non-lethal discouragement to catastrophic stoppage against close-in threats that could appear suddenly in the littorals or, as we have seen with the USS Cole in port, permits a ‘tuned to circumstance’ defense,” the journal article says.
HELIOS is intended to advance laser technology and bring higher levels of power, increased sensing ability, and longer range than existing systems. The Navy’s Laser Weapon System has been deployed for many years. The LaWS first deployed on the USS Ponce several years ago. HELIOS represents a step forward with its new attack capabilities and the ability to combine the weapon’s fire control with ship-based Aegis radar.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.