The U.S. Navy is moving ahead with plans to field a powerful new shipborne laser weapons system on a rapid timeline, with first operational availability expected by 2020.
The Navy's Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems has called for expressions of interest in what it calls the SEASABER Increment 1 Laser Weapons System, a 60 kW-plus laser that would be fielded on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer.
At a panel at the Navy's Surface Naval Association symposium in January, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, the director of the Surface Warfare Division, said that he expects the service to test a 150 kW laser within about a year. He said that the device would be installed on a carrier or a destroyer within another year.
The history of the U.S. military's laser weapons systems program dates back to the 1960s, not long after Bell Labs test-fired the world's first laser device. All three service branches experimented with laser weapons. Early devices used gases or chemicals as a medium, like the Navy's deuterium fluoride-based MIRACL and the Air Force's oxygen-iodine-based ABL, and most were far too large and complex to be useful for mobile platforms. Billions of dollars in Cold War-era research could not alter that fact – but the advent of solid-state laser technology has changed the picture.
Just as laser pointers have become dramatically more powerful in recent years, high-energy laser weapons have gotten more compact, and at least one is already in operational use. The USS Ponce fields the Navy's first shipmounted laser authorized for defensive purposes, the XN-1 LaWS (or Laser Weapon System). The 150 kW-class device that Rear Adm. Boxall discussed would be about five times more powerful.
Separately, the Missile Defense Agency says that it is investigating a new anti-ballistic missile laser, which would be carried by drone aircraft. It would attack missiles just after launch, their most vulnerable flight phase; unlike previous airborne anti-ICBM laser systems, the drone aircraft platform would make it possible to fly it within range of the enemy’s launch site without risk to human pilots. It may prove to be a valuable addition to the agency's existing anti-ICBM system, the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, which has had a failure rate of about 50 percent in testing.