The US Navy plans to deploy high-energy laser weapons from 2020 in a $150 million initiative to build a device that can destroy or disable hostile drones or small boats.
The weapon system, called High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS), will also be linked with the radar-based Aegis naval defence system.
It will also be used for surveillance and intelligence gathering; and, more basically, be used to dazzle sensors and the cameras used in drones. The contract could eventually be worth up to $942.8 million to Lockheed Martin.
The initiative is being led by US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, with the first stage of two units deliverable by 2020: One unit will be delivered for shipboard integration on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and one unit will be used for land testing at White Sands Missile Range.
Major navies across the world need better weapons to protect themselves against small sea-borne or airborne threats, including small boats and remote-controlled drones that might pass unnoticed by traditional radar technologies. Protection against drones, for example, must distinguish between a real threat to the ship and sea birds.
The HELIOS project is the first stage of the US Navy's Surface Navy Laser Weapon System program, started in March last year. The aim is not just to prototype and experiment with new technologies that can supplement traditional defences and weapons for naval ships, but to make sure that they can be properly integrated with the Aegis Combat System.
"There are systems out there right now at various power levels that are just stand-alone. We know that. What we'd like to do is be able to integrate it so that when you have an effect in competition, in war, in a maritime environment, you know how to put those together with the kinetic systems we already have in the field," rear admiral Mike Manazir said last year at the Directed Energy Summit, quoted by USNI News.
He continued: "In this increasing world of digitization, and information's the coin of the realm, moving data around the battlespace is going to be the way you beat the other guy. You're going to have to be able to use non-kinetic weapons, you're going to have to be able to use the information space, to overwhelm the adversary. But you're also going to have to use kinetic weapons."
"And so we do want to reduce the cost-curve, we do know that a deep energy magazine where you have constant shots of directed energy can take the place of multimillion dollar missiles. … There's a place for both [kinetic and energy weapons], and you've got to figure out how to put them together."
The move towards testing with a view to implementation and integration in the US Navy follows on from tests across the three branches of the US military. This includes the 30-kilowatt Navy Laser Weapon System (LAWS) that has been tested in the Persian Gulf.
"Navy technicians will integrate the laser and its control systems with the ship's power, cooling, and battle management systems. That's an important step - an earlier Navy LAWS system was never integrated with shipboard systems on the USS Ponce for testing," according to IEEE Spectrum.
It adds that Lockheed uses a technique called ‘spectral beam combination' that "blends the outputs of many fibre lasers emitting light at slightly different wavelengths. In essence, this combines many different lasers to generate a single, focused beam.
Last year, Lockheed Martin delivered a 60-kilowatt version to the Army Space and Missile Defense Systems Command to install on a military truck
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