Later this year, the U.S. Navy is sending laser weapons to war. The Navy will soon be introducing a paradigm-changing weapons system that will allow warships to incinerate enemy drones, helicopters, fixed-wing assets, and even other ships or fast-attack boats.
For several years, Lockheed Martin and the Navy have been working on a 60 kilowatt, ship-integrated laser weapon called the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS). Having recently completed testing and preparation at Wallops Island, the weapons will soon be sent to San Diego, California, to arm a Navy destroyer called the USS Preble, Lockheed developers said at the Surface Navy Association Symposium.
“The laser will be out to sea this year,” a senior Lockheed weapons developer told reporters.
Although laser weapons have armed ships for many years now, the HELIOS is more powerful, longer range, scalable, and more lethal than existing or previous lasers. As far back as five years ago, the Navy deployed a counter drone weapon called Laser Weapons System (LAWs) on board an amphibious transport dock called the USS Ponce.
Arming destroyers with HELIOS, however, is an impactful step forward in advancing the Navy’s maritime warfare capabilities for a number of key reasons. Lasers are scalable, meaning the level of power can be adjusted to meet a given threat—such as, for example, disabling or stopping a target or completely destroying it as needed. This powerful laser has now been successfully integrated on destroyers because the Navy and its industry partners have developed innovative ways to store and utilize on board, expeditionary power. With the right amount of power and energy, laser weapons can be “power scaled” to hit targets at very long ranges with lethal and even unprecedented weapons effects. In fact, the Missile Defense Agency is now working on using lasers for missile defense, meaning it could be technically possible to fire lasers to the top of or even beyond the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere.
An interceptor weapon such as an SM-3 or SM-6 might not be as scalable in terms of tailoring effects, meaning they will use explosive energetics and fragmentation to destroy a threat object. A laser, however, might be positioned to incinerate or disable an enemy asset or incoming missile without generating a large and potentially indiscriminate explosion. This option might be particularly useful in circumstances where a threat is traveling over a populated area or highly trafficked ocean area where ship defenders might wish to minimize potential damage to civilians.
Lasers are also inexpensive, meaning they could be in a position to track and destroy incoming anti-ship missiles, rockets, or larger platforms such as enemy helicopters, drones, and ships with multiple successive shots without needing to expend expensive interceptor missiles.
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.