By Spencer Ackerman
During a year of budget cuts that has the U.S. military freaking out, the Navy is improbably signaling it’ll take major steps forward on developing laser cannons.
Next month, the Navy plans to devote a big panel discussion on the “Breakthrough Technologies” behind energy weapons at its annual D.C.-area confab known as Sea Air Space. Heading it will be the officer charged with moving those lasers out of sci-fi and onto ships, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the Navy’s chief of research. It’ll be a de facto prologue to a far more significant event the Navy plans in the coming months: the first-ever demonstration tour of a laser gun aboard a surface ship, the U.S.S. Ponce.
That’s a major show of confidence in laser technology, for two reasons. First, testing a laser gun — most likely a solid-state laser — on a ship at sea puts enormous pressure on a much-hyped weapon to show-and-prove. Second, the laser isn’t going on any old ship, it’s going on the Ponce, recently retrofitted to become an “Afloat Forward Staging Base” — that is, a new launchpad for attack helicopters, drones and commandos for, among other missions, counterterrorism raids. In other words, the Navy is putting laser weaponry aboard one of the ships it’s most eager to highlight.
All of this is still a demonstration — one with the added and perhaps unintended consequence of adding more hype to a form of weapon that’s been nothing but hype for literally decades. But it comes at a time when congressionally mandated budget shortfalls have the Navy scaling back nearly everything it plans on doing this year. Research cash is especially scarce. Yet one of the naval community’s biggest laser advocates argues that the unique features of so-called “directed energy” weaponry are particularly well-suited for an era of tighter budgets.
“In a sense, it’s more economical — but more than just theoretically economical, it’s a way to have deeper magazines, because your fuel tanks become your mags,” says Nevin Carr, a retired two-star admiral who preceded Klunder as head of the Office of Naval Research. (Klunder declined comment for this story.) Laser weaponry recharges by taking power from a power source like a shipboard generator. Keep adding power and the gun will keep shooting, provided that the ship isn’t diverting power from its propulsion systems. (A big caveat, and one that the Navy repeatedly swears it’s got covered.)
A rechargeable magazine doesn’t just save the Navy money on weapons. “Now that refueling becomes rearming, it changes the logistics trail,” Carr argues. “Think of all the ships that carry weapons” to warships across oceans, burning through fuel — and rising fuel costs are a problem the Navy just hasn’t been able to solve.
But it’s not just the possible cost savings. The Navy really thinks the technology behind laser guns is mature. In 2011, for the first time, a solid-state laser weapon burned through the outboard motor of an inflatable boat, all through choppy waters at a distance. Developing sorts of lasers, solid-state lasers that use crystals or glass to create focused beams of light, have been the Navy researchers’ recent priority, rather than the relatively technologically complex, multi-wavelength Free Electron Laser that Congress came close to killing — and taking Navy laser cash with it. Last year, Klunder confidently predicted to Danger Room that laser weaponry would be ready to put aboard ships in 2014.
All this helps explain why the Navy thinks directed-energy weapons are due for a major 2013 push. But the Navy’s laser arsenal will have limited utility, at least in its early years. Solid-state lasers like the one likely to be on the Ponce are a cousin of commercial welding technology, and have limits to the amount of power they can efficiently generate. Carr doubts that the first wave of Navy lasers will be able to generate the 100 kilowatts that’s generally considered militarily relevant.
“It’s a good capability for softer targets like UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] and boghammers — small, fast-swarming boats,” Carr says. Indeed, Danger Room reported last year that shooting down seafaring drones is the first task the Navy’s considering for its laser arsenal. But a laser that generates less than a megawatt’s worth of power is useless against the number-one threat to the surface fleet, anti-ship missiles. “You aren’t gonna do that with a solid-state laser,” Carr concedes. (Phaser weapons, in case you were wondering, aren’t on the table.)
The Navy’s mad scientists have made decades’ worth of expensive promises about laser weaponry, and so far, they haven’t panned out. That makes the Navy’s 2013 gamble a potential moment when the lasers will either power up or fizzle out.