I will admit to being a bit surprised a few days ago when the Navy announced that they plan to deploy lasers onboard the U.S.S. Ponce in 2014. Of course I know that Directed Energy has been an area of interest for decades, and that many DoD labs and defense contractors invest a considerable amount of time and energy to develop this technology. But a production model to be installed on an active ship?
There are many benefits inherent in a laser system that will completely change the way we track, engage and destroy close range targets. With speed of light, limitless capability (as long as there is power), lasers will disrupt the conventional design, build, and deploy method for weapons at sea. The Navy has invested heavily to bring this to fruition. The Laser Weapon System (LaWS) and the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD) prototypes have successfully demonstrated the capabilities. But the decision to move to a program of record is still pending.
The first test of a high-energy laser onboard a ship occurred in 2011 under the Maritime Laser Demonstration project that Northrop Grumman did for ONR with NAVSEA PEO IWS and the Directed Energy Program Office. Held on-board the USS FOSTER, they successfully demonstrated that a laser weapon could be used from a ship to deter small boats.
Last year the Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems (DE&EWS) Program Office at NAVSEA successfully demonstrated that their prototype could destroy UAV’s. Their mission is to “transition technology from the laboratory to prototype system development/test for operational development and use”. According to the information put out so far, they have spent $40 million to develop and build this capability.
That’s all good, but at this point I am asking, “WHERE is the program of record and WHEN will the program be fairly competed”? A Laser Weapon System consists mostly of commercial solutions that can be bought piece-meal. The Navy as an integrator makes sense. But the Navy is doing almost everything here. So far, it appears to be an in-house affair using Navy resources and a few commercial products. But since it is not a program, its hard to really tell what’s going on.
My favorite Navy expert, Ron O’Rourke, recently tackled the subject in Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress (published 14MAR2013 and available here: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R41526.pdf). He gives an outstanding and thorough review of the development so far. He is an expert at giving a fair analysis of the alternatives and he covers both sides of the issue. He accurately points out that currently there is no analysis of alternatives to determine the cost benefits of directed energy vs kinetic weapons. Additionally, there is no “operational requirement” for directed energy to address capability gaps. However, with the announcement that USN is getting ready to install their homegrown version on a Navy ship, I think it’s about time to open this up to competition.
Meanwhile, there are other implications that will benefit from the rigor of a real Program. In the newly released U.S. Navy Information Dominance Roadmap (2013-2028), the Navy grapples with how to include this use of the spectrum for non-kinetic fires and lumps it in with cyberspace operations and jamming. “Navy’s current capabilities in this area are likewise constrained by increasing EM demands, the need for tools to better understand the EM environment, and the limited understanding and application of cyber authorities and effects.”
When I was at Naval Post Graduate School, I took a course called Introduction to Lasers and their Applications. The only A+ I got! I loved the class, because LASERS ARE COOL! So I get it that Navy is keeping the work in-house. I’d hate to let it go, too! But the Navy needs to develop a program of record to purchase the production versions, and they need to create a roadmap on how they plan to install them and on what ships.