Lasers, Rail Guns and the Future of the U.S. Navy

The future is here and it’s shining with lasers!

The Navy is about to take a big step for military-kind; this summer they will add the first ship-mounted laser to their fleet.  The USS Ponce will be equipped with the phaser-like laser weapon, and yes, it’s exactly as cool – and as deadly – as it sounds.  So how much of this new device reflects the fictional laser weapons of science fiction lore?

Quite a bit, actually.

Photo: Laser Weapon System (LaWS) - KTM Prototype. (U.S. Navy file photo/Released)

It’s a lot less like a laser pointer than I was expecting, frankly.
Laser Weapon System (LaWS) – KTM Prototype. (U.S. Navy file photo/Released)

Navy Capt. Mike Ziv is the program manager for NAVSEA’s directed energy and electric weapons division.  That means, essentially, that Capt. Ziv is in charge of both lasers and rail guns.  He’s also their deputy chief technology officer, and the head of the Chief Technology Office Group.

Basically, he’s the pew-pew guy … which is pretty awesome.  I mean, nobody puts me in charge of rail guns.

I sat down with Capt. Ziv to get the skinny on this new lasergence (see what I did there?) of high tech weaponry to the fleet.  A good place to start is the Navy’s Directed Energy Program.

“So the primary focus is on laser systems,” Capt. Ziv explains.  “Of course, directed energy is a bit of a broader topic that also includes other things like high-powered radio frequency, high-powered microwave.  But the Navy’s focus has been on laser systems.”

Internet rumors would have you believe that the military is just, you know, creating their own version of Star Wars, shooting things out of the sky.  While lasers they may have, the Empire they are not.  Let me explain.  No, there is too much.  Let me sum up.

The larger picture for the Navy’s DEP is the desire to pursue the technologies, Ziv explains.  The laser system you have probably heard about the most is called LaWS: the laser weapon system.  It’s a government-designed system that’s been developed, through the Office of Naval Research, PMS 405 at NAVSEA, and the subject matter experts at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren.

The LaWS that is going on the Ponce this summer is a part of a prototype system to test the waters of naval laser operations. One of the things they’re able to do as this technology develops is take the complicated laser technology that’s available and reduce it down to the point where it could be operated by a single sailor.

“It’s going to be used in an operationally relevant environment, and it’s really going to set the framework for what we call transition to program of record,” Ziv explains.

“What we really want to achieve is to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this system is ready to be operated in theatre, operated by our sailors, and ready to transition to be in broader use throughout the fleets.  And I think we’re on track to get that done.”

So, the question that many people have been asking is: will this be the one and only, or are we looking at a future of laser-based naval warfare?  Will there be such a thing as a laser specialty?  Will they be better at aiming than storm troopers? (Because really, it would be hard to be worse.)

The decision as to which ships will actually get these systems is still being discussed, but Ziv says that the possibilities are very extensive as to which ships they could go on.

“One of the advantages of the laser system we’re using is that it’s based on commercial technologies. It’s fairly efficient compared to other lasers, and because of that, it can be powered on a lot of different platforms, using existing power sources.”

And let’s take a look at that power, shall we?

As far as missions are concerned, the LaWS’s main use is against what the military calls asymmetric threats.  In particular, those threats include small boats and certain air targets, such as UAV’s.  Capt. Ziv says these are the two primary mission sets.

Essentially, it’s designed to disable, blind or destroy these ships depending on the varying degree of threat.  But what’s the range?  Can you, honestly, set the lasers to stun?

Actually…yeah.  Yeah, you can.

“The effects are scalable,” Ziv says.  “The power can be turned all the way from a low power system, all the way up to higher powers.  So, for example, if a particular sensor is involved anywhere in that analysis, it has the ability to have scalable effects.  In some cases reversible, and in some cases it can be used for destruction.”

The weapon system is said to be effective against anything from high powered drones to small watercraft. As technology evolves, so do the threats that we’re faced with, but there are some who might wonder what benefit a laser machine might have for the present military.  In order to do that, you need to get a sense of the kind of threats we intend to engage, Ziv says.

“I think how it aids in a mission is in the integration of an overall layered defense.  Although I think we’re going to get great capability, it’s not a one-form replacement for any systems out there.  But it really does add to what an operational commander might be able to do in theater by adding this element to its layered defense.  It adds a lot of flexibility that previously would not have been there.”

Capt. Ziv says, and I quite agree, that this is likely going to pave the way for other higher-powered lasers that have additional mission sets to come in the future.

“I think that another thing that we’ve really accomplished by putting this prototype out there is just getting the processes, the doctrine, in place that’s necessary to operate a laser system of this kind.  It’s going to open the way.”

In the future, the new laser systems will just be advancements in technology.  This is because a lot of the policy they lay down now is going to be applicable for a wide range of future laser systems to come.  This holds great promise for the Navy’s laser future, by the way.  If there’s a policy, there’s a probability.

And speaking of future military weapons, I heard a rumor that the Navy was thinking of arming their ships with rail guns.  Is there any truth to that?

“There is,” Capt. Ziv tells me.  “The approach we’re taking as we kind of evolve the technology is to build it in ways where it could be used in any variety of land and sea-based applications.  We work very closely, especially with the Naval Sea Systems Command, with the ship integrators, and we work with others looking at land-based applications as well.”

Ships with lasers on their hulls and rail guns on the horizon.  It really is the start of a new era.  I’d call it the age of technological warfare, but that would be a little too grandiose.  It seems the military is taking the right steps toward smarter, faster, more cost efficient weaponry.  For Capt. Ziv it goes beyond that.

I really believe we are at a turning point,” he says.  “We’ve talked about these technologies for many, many years, but we really are at the point where everything is really lined up.  The technology, the support all the way up in our chain of command, as well as through many other organizations, including the Hill.  This is the time that these systems are going to transition.  This is something I’ve sort of always really wanted to do, and it’s an honor being a part of it.”

The deployment of the LaWS on the USS Ponce is set for the summer of 2014, with great anticipation.

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Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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