Key Point: Today’s lasers lack the power and range to destroy large targets or do any damage at all at ranges farther than a few miles.
The U.S. Navy apparently has installed a new laser cannon on one of its destroyers. The installation could represent a big step forward for the U.S. fleet as it scrambles to deploy defenses against Chinese and Russian anti-ship missiles.
A source provided to Tyler Rogoway, editor of The War Zone, a photo of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Dewey at the naval base in San Diego. In the photo, Dewey appears to sport a new laser weapon on its forward deck.
The Navy is developing several directed-energy weapons for shipboard use. It’s unclear exactly which laser the destroyer carries. Rogoway engaged in some educated guesswork. “By our analysis, the most likely answer to what we are seeing on Dewey is the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy system, which was set to be installed on a Navy destroyer by the end of this year.”
ODIN is a lower power laser system that will be used to blind enemy electro-optical and infrared sensor systems by shining a modulated "dazzler" laser beam at them in a similar manner as to how directed infrared countermeasure systems work to defend aircraft from heat-seeking missiles. ODIN will be capable of countering ship and boat-based systems, those used by aircraft and drones, and even those used by anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles.
ODIN could complement the existing active and passive self-defense suites on the Navy’s major warships. Current defenses include SM-6, SM-3, SM-2, Evolved Sea Sparrow and Rolling Airframe Missile surface-to-air missiles, Phalanx radar-guided guns, Nulka decoys and the SLQ-32 and SLQ-59 radar-jammers.
Many of the passive defenses are designed to disrupt an anti-ship missile’s radar guidance. But more and more Chinese and Russian missiles also feature infrared guidance against which the radar-countermeasures are useless.
ODIN “could blind these missiles, sending them off course or into the sea as they make their kamikaze attack runs,” Rogoway noted.
Dewey’s laser is one of two new directed-energy weapons to make a dramatic public appearance in recent weeks. The U.S. Navy in mid-October 2019 began shipping a powerful new laser weapon from a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, California to the Navy base in San Diego.
The War Zone was the first to report on the painstaking process of moving the bulky weapon.
In San Diego, workers planned to install the 150-kilowatt laser on the amphibious assault ship USS Portland. The vessel’s crew could test the new weapon beginning in late 2019.
Northrop built the laser under the auspices of the Navy’s $53-million Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation program, which launched in 2015.
As a shipboard weapon, a laser could hold several advantages over traditional weapons such as guns or missiles. For one, a laser does not need ammunition. As long as the ship has power, the laser can continue firing. A laser also could strike targets faster than, say, a missile could do.
But today’s lasers lack the power and range to destroy large targets or do any damage at all at ranges farther than a few miles. SSL-TM and a related effort at Lockheed Martin could result in lasers with the power and range to defend ships from drones, small boats, cruise missiles and even ballistic missiles.
"Low-cost directed-energy weapons have to be part of our future," Adm. William Moran, then Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said at an industry conference in 2016. "If we have to continue to rely on projectiles, we will run out of the ability to defend ourselves."
The Navy intends SSL-TM to be a learning experience, USNI News explained. The service selected Portland to host the weapon because the 25,000-ton-displacement vessel possesses the space and spare electrical power effectively to host Northrop’s tractor-trailer-size laser.
“Once installed on the ship, the Navy will learn much about laser weapons through SSL-TM testing,” USNI News reporter Megan Eckstein wrote.
Around the same time the Navy tapped Northrop to build the SSL-TM, the sailing branch also awarded Lockheed a $150-million contract to develop the High-Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-Dazzler and Surveillance system, or HELIOS.
The 60-kilowatt HELIOS draws less power than the SSL-TM does. The Navy plans to begin installing the smaller laser cannon on destroyers starting in 2021. ODIN functions as a proof-of-concept for the more-powerful HELIOS laser.
The Navy hopes to begin fielding a megawatt-class laser in the 2025 timeframe. A laser with that kind of power could destroy ballistic missiles, but might require a very large host ship that also has ample electrical power. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, for instance.