Naval officials have confirmed that “directed energy” weapon research for its warships is proceeding at pace, and that within two years a 150 KW “super – laser” could be fitted to these ships.
At the annual Surface Naval Association symposium, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, director of the Surface Warfare Division of the US Navy, confirmed that plans to develop and roll out these weapons were proceeding.
He confirmed that the Navy plans to test a 150 KW weapon on one of its ships within a year, and that after a year of testing the technology would be extended to other ships in its arsenal. A carrier or a destroyer class ship is thought to be the most likely first recipient of these weapons.
The purpose of the weapon is defensive. It is designed to destroy incoming missiles, drones, small aircraft, and several other threats. Whilst the lasers deployed by the US Navy to date have primarily relied on “dazzling” the enemy, confusing the navigation systems of vehicles, these new weapons are thought to be the first to be able to actually damage threats directly.
The first such weapon was unveiled back in 2014, a 30 KW laser mounted on a US Navy ship that is patrolling in the Persian Gulf. This weapon relied on non-destructive defense, using a laser to confuse incoming attackers rather than destroy them.
Though it proved successful, it is understood that the US Navy was frustrated with the low power of the weapon. Whilst the Navy has had plans to use laser weaponry for many years – since the invention of the technology – several technical limitations have held it back.
The biggest difficulty to date has been the power needed for laser weapons. In order to be producing a beam of 150 KW, the laser assembly consumes 450 KW. This requirement greatly exceeds the capability of most ships, which were not built to power laser weapons.
It is though, therefore, that the Navy is exploring other ways of powering these weapons. The idea of an “energy magazine” is one such proposal. In this design, a bank of capacitors, batteries, or a mechanical flywheel would store the huge energies required by the laser, before releasing them in a pulse. In a perfect design, this bank would recharge itself quickly, allowing the laser to have a high rate of fire. In practice, however, designing a system like this is likely to be beyond our capabilities for some years.
If laser weapons can be made feasible, they offer great advantages. They can be aimed very precisely, targeting weak spots on enemy aircraft or missiles, and able to bring them down very quickly.
Operating without ammunition is also a huge advantage. Ammo is expensive, an especially the shells required for large naval guns. Laser weapons are expected to operate at about 59 cents per shot, a huge saving. Not using ammo also reduces the weight Navy ships are expected to carry, improving their efficiency and range.
Whilst tests are continuing, expect to see more warships with laser weapons over the next few years, and perhaps the technology eventually being mounted on aircraft.
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