Military forces have been aspiring to fight at the speed of light ever since lasers were developed 60 years ago. So far, the services have succeeded in fielding lasers for targeting and other nonlethal purposes. These are helpful tools for troops on the battlefield, but far short of technologists' desire of shooting down missiles, rockets, artillery and mortar rounds with destructive light energy beams.
Harnessing high-powered lasers in a deployable weapon system has remained an elusive endeavor outside of laboratory experiments and prototyping efforts. Scientists have struggled with the paradoxical challenges of making lasers small and hardy, yet powerful enough to destroy targets in seconds. Solutions are slowly forthcoming, but patience is running low for defense officials who want to start seeing results in operational settings.
The Navy expects to incorporate lasers onto most ship classes in its surface fleet, including amphibious ships, cruisers and destroyers. "The continuing goal is to deploy ships with an appropriate weapons mix, possibly one day including directed energy weapons, to engage and defeat any potential adversary across the spectrum of naval warfare," said Rear Adm. Frank Pandolfe, director of surface warfare on the Navy staff.
Experts believe that of all the services the Navy holds the most promise for helping directed energy weapons become operationally viable systems in the near future. Its warships can provide adequate spaces for hosting the current generation of power-hungry and coolant-needy lasers.
Armed with guns and missiles, the Navy's surface ships can defend themselves from current airborne and surface threats. But officials have been pushing research and development programs in directed energy in hopes of yielding future weapons to bolster ship defenses against new threats including high-speed boats and unmanned aircraft. Those efforts have blossomed into prototypes that are being tested this year.
The Naval Sea Systems Command in May demonstrated the feasibility of using commercial fiber lasers to knock down small unmanned aircraft from the sky. This fall, the Office of Naval Research plans to demonstrate a high-energy laser weapon system prototype at sea for the first time. If that demonstration proves successful at destroying a high-speed boat target, then Navy officials could decide to procure a system and become the first service to incorporate high-powered lasers into its weapon inventory.