WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
We are entering a new era of warfare, full of AI fuelled semi-autonomous weapons, hypersonic missiles and lasers.
The US military is increasingly ramping up its interest in, and spending on, new laser weapons, that will be positioned at forward operating bases, and on destroyers, F-35’s and Stryker combat vehicles, in the hope that they can be effectively used to deter, and where necessary terminate, an increasing number of new hostile enemy threats – threats that range from new Artificial Intelligence (AI) driven, and in some cases autonomous, intelligent cruise missiles, hypersonic missile systems and “Carrier killers,” as well as a growing army of increasingly powerful and capable drones, many of which can already swarm, and some of which are already using new metamaterials to make themselves laser proof.
Recently the US Navy (USN) announced that their next laser weapon will break new ground in the race to build the world’s first combat ready laser weapons and be one of the most powerful laser weapons in existence, provided of course that everything goes according to plan. And to make it happen they’ve awarded a $150million contract to Lockheed Martin to develop, build, and deliver two copies of a new high power laser weapon, dubbed the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance, or HELIOS for short, that will have three major capabilities and be delivered in 2020.
HELIOS’s first capability, as you’d expect, is a high-energy laser weapon that will generate up to 150 kilowatts of steady power which is enough to disable or destroy small boats or hostile drones called Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). The second allows it to use its optical system to gather intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance information about an extended area around the ship its deployed on, and the third is to dazzle or confuse sensors and cameras on drones, but not to destroy them.
“It’s a watershed moment for us, to move out of the domain of [scientific and technical work] and into delivering real laser weapon systems capability to deploy on Navy vessels,” says Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems at Lockheed.
It’s also the first stage of the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System program, which itself is the first project in a new effort by the US Navy to speed up the development and deployment of these new platforms.
So far the technology agencies of three branches of the military have spent the past several years testing demonstration laser weapons, like the ones the USAF used recently to shoot drones out of the sky, and it’s not going to be very long now before laser weapons go mainstream.
Once they’re developed one of the two systems that Lockheed develops will be installed on an Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer, the backbone of the Navy’s destroyer fleet where USN technicians will integrate it and its control systems with the ship’s power, cooling, and battle management systems – something that never happened with previous test systems like LaWS. Meanwhile the other laser will be shipped to the White Sands Missile Range for extensive testing. The Lockheed contract includes options worth up to $942.8 million for training, maintenance, support, and additional lasers.
Laser weapons have come a long way from the first bulk solid state system that generated 100 kilowatts for five solid minutes in a Northrop Grumman lab nine years ago, and to produce the higher power and more tightly focused beam needed to kill targets a kilometer or more away Lockheed Martin uses a technique called spectral beam combination that blends the outputs of many fiber lasers emitting light at slightly different wavelengths.
Originally the company first combined the 300 watt beams from 96 separate lasers to generate a single 30 kilowatt beam, then they built a 60-kilowatt version that they delivered last year to the Army Space and Missile Defense Systems Command in Huntsville, Alabama to install on a military truck. Just last year they also landed a contract to build a pod-based laser weapon to test on a plane. Now, they will build two more brand new systems for the Navy, and soon we will see the start of something every sci fi fan has dreamed of seeing for years – laser weapons in the mainstream. Let’s just hope we don’t need to use them in World War III.