U.S. Navy to Install High-Powered Laser on Destroyer

Video still courtesy Lockheed

Published Jan 30, 2018 6:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Department of Defense announced Friday that it has awarded Lockheed Martin a $150 million contract for a "high energy laser with integrated optical dazzler and surveillance," or HELIOS. The announcement is for two prototypes, and if all options are exercised, the contract value could rise to over $940 million. 

One of the two new HELIOS lasers will be installed on USS Arleigh Burke, the lead ship in the class of 60-plus destroyers bearing the same name. The Arleigh Burkes are the Navy's multimission workhorses, deployed for everything from anti-piracy to carrier strike group protection to land attack. They are designed around the Aegis Combat System and the powerful AN/SPY-1 targeting radar, and some are equipped for ballistic missile defense.

Lockheed delivered a prototype laser of similar power for the U.S. Army in early 2017. The 58 kW single beam device - believed to be the most powerful of its kind in the world - was shipped for the Army's Missile Defense Command / Strategic Forces Command last March. Lockheed says that the design uses multiple laser subunits to produce multiple beams that are then combined into one, and its modular setup could be built up into a yet-more-powerful version with the addition of more subunits. "The inherent scalability of this beam combined laser system has allowed us to build the first 60kW-class fiber laser for the U.S. Army," said Robert Afzal, Ph.D., Lockheed's senior fellow for Laser and Sensor Systems. "We have shown that a powerful directed energy laser is now sufficiently light-weight, low volume and reliable enough to be deployed on tactical vehicles for defensive applications on land, at sea and in the air."

The Navy's previous experience with solid state laser weapons indicates that the space-age devices have real-world potential. In field testing aboard the USS Ponce, Kratos' 30 kW LaWS laser demonstrated that it could disable outboard motors and small unmanned aerial vehicles, and the Navy was sufficiently impressed that it authorized its use for defensive purposes. LaWS benefits from a virtually limitless magazine, a very low cost per round and rapid repeated firing, and its power can be turned down to "dazzle" personnel or sensors without causing physical harm. It also has a powerful telescope for manual targeting and surveillance. However, like almost all lasers, LaWS faces challenges in periods of low visibility, and it cannot be used to engage targets over the horizon.