Navy learning lessons from shipboard laser

Tara Copp,  Washington Examiner

To demonstrate the challenges ahead for full development of the Navy’s shipboard laser, the laser’s program officer picked up his smartphone and slammed it into the ground.

The protected phone bounced twice, but it was just fine.

“Ruggedization,” said Peter Morrison, program officer for the Navy’s solid state laser program.

Morrison was demonstrating one of the lessons the Navy learned from the deployment and testing of its latest shipboard laser, the AN/SEQ-3 (XN-1) Laser Weapon System (LaWS). Last August the Navy installed LaWS on the bridge of the USS Ponce, a large forward basing ship that’s assigned to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

The laser was one of two advanced firing systems, along with its electromagnetic rail gun, that the Navy promoted at its Future Force Science and Technology Expo this week. The Navy wants both innovations to augment, or even replace the arsenal of missiles and munitions onboard its ships, the Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations said just a day earlier.

“Get me off gunpowder,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said, noting that the cost to shoot either a laser or rail gun would be substantially less than it costs to shoot a missile, and would reduce the amount of explosive ammunition on his ships.

Since the current laser’s deployment, and through earlier rounds of testing, the Navy has successfully shot down target drones and is looking at other applications, Greenert said. He added, however, that this particular model would be tough to use effectively for land-based defense against a drone, given its size, energy and cooling requirements.

The laser aboard the Ponce was ruggedized and has been used to gather design and operations feedback that will be applied to the Navy’s higher-powered follow-on systems.

Even though the laser was provided extra protection to be able to operate aboard deck, more work is needed.

“Lasers will be in the sea environment and they will get dunked. Green water over the bow is real life. So having to dunk optics in sea water — and then having to clean them, and be concerned about how they are going to be maintained — that’s not going to be an ensign you are going to send out there with a bottle of Windex. That’s not where you want to be in real time, when you need to be able to fight … swarm threats coming to you,” Morrison said.

The seawater’s impact on the optic’s sensitive coatings over long deployments are also a takeaway the Navy is focusing on, Morrison said.

The number of platforms for the laser is limited, Morrison pointed out. Like the shipboard railgun, the laser requires an enormous amount of energy to operate and cool. A ship would also require much higher levels of power to fire and target the laser through the atmosphere for more advanced defenses.

Earlier versions of the laser have had testing success in accurately firing on target UAVs, Morrison said. The technology has also been developed to the point that an operator can quickly stop a laser firing if friendly forces unexpectedly move into its path.

The Ponce testing is expected to run for 12 months. The laser will be removed once testing is completed.

“We understood when we put that system on the Ponce — it was something that was a technology demonstrator — something we are able to improve. But there’s an end-of-life to it. We wouldn’t build a production line off what that design is currently.”

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