Navy One Step Closer to Using Lasers for Ship Defense

The U.S. Navy is one step closer to developing a ship-mounted laser capable of defending against everything from swarms of speedboats to anti-ship missiles.

After more than two decades of research, scientists at Los Alamos National Lab last month demonstrated the technology, known as a Free Electron Laser, needed to generate a one megawatt beam that could one day provide light-speed close-in defense of Navy ships.

From the Virginian-Pilot newspaper:

“Until now, we didn’t have the evidence to support our models,” Dinh Nguyen, senior project leader for the Free Electron Laser program at the New Mexico lab, said in a news release.

The free-electron laser works by passing a beam of high-energy electrons, generated by an injector, through a series of strong magnetic fields. The result is an intense emission of laser light.

“The FEL is expected to provide future U.S. Naval forces with a near-instantaneous laser ship defense in any maritime environment throughout the world,” Quentin Saulter, program manager for the Office of Naval Research said in the release.

The laser’s speed will be a benefit to a ship that needs to react to moving or swarming targets. And it provides an effective alternative to using expensive missiles against low-value targets, a release from the Navy said.

The system could even be used as a sensor or for target designation and “disruption.”

Still the system’s got a long way to go before it hits the fleet. The Navy’s moving to test out a 100 kilowatt version of the laser soon and it will be 2018 at the earliest before the Office of Naval Research expects to test out a prototype on a ship.

Here’s the article.

  • Justin H

    A “laser”

    • Nadnerbus

      Fricking “lasers.”

      • Bill

        subs with freaking laser beams attached to their heads.

    • alan

      laser iron dome and missile iron dome.together 100% iron dome target importance iron dome and she, a method of defense.important iron curtain.

      • alan ward

        moving iron dome,and aircraft.iron movement, and aircraft,plus jet -plane iron tageting.on board iron target laser.

  • brian

    High Energy Lasers = Nuclear Power.
    Nuclear Power = No More Hippies holding back our Navy

    All we need to do to move this forward is a massive pot arrest on capital hill

  • Maxtrue…

    The new tech is the leverage. DEW and hypersonics will change everything by the end of the decade provided Congress doesn’t stop the funding…..

    • Musson

      Is it just me? Or, does the ship pictured not have a railing?

      Are they going to prohibit sailors from being on deck when the sea
      is not perfectly calm?

      • Musson

        Oh well. I guess it keeps them from being fried by the frickin’ lasers.

      • clockdryve

        I’m sure there is no railing included in the artist drawing to avoid obstacles to the view eyes…get the point>>>the lasers are the main focus.

    • blight

      We’re going to smaller government now, so the AARP’s constituents don’t get mad at the trough getting cut off.

  • Jeff

    And those poor Chinese just caught up to the OTH cruise missile generation with their “Carrier Killer”, this news must suck for them and their billion dollar investment in the project…Confucius say Sh@#

    • PauD

      Don’t worry, they’ll steal all your laser technology too

    • DiverDan75

      OTH? over the hooters…..oh wait horizon.
      Confucius hadn’t even heard of Washington, but he still had it right when he said “Man on hill…..not on the level”

  • Maxtrue

    As I said elsewhere, keep screaming about the J-20. Act like we’ll reopen the Raptor line and feed our allies in the Far East because we are SO scared. The future is another reality and getting there first is critical. I deeply suspect that what we the public “know” about our present R&D is the tip of the iceberg, though Congress could severely slow the speed we are reaching forward. What nation on earth already has a targeting system and turret that can hit targets from the sky with a high powered laser. DEW is already going into the field.

    One energy solution for ABL systems would be energy capacitors that can be recharged in flight by ground or air-based DEW such as tight microwave. Perhaps a DEW absorbing skin. Wouldn’t the Chinese find that ironic? This approach as well as advanced electronics, radar, jammers, hypervelocity and rail are the things China worries about. The things they will try to steal…..

    • Jay

      We should reopen the F22, and SELL it to our allies to recoup development costs.

      I hope you are right. I think the US is in a strong position now but it may not be sustainable long term. How are our kids in school scoring in science and math vs chinese kids?
      I don’t know if you have been in a major university lately, but a lot of the students in engineering, science, and computers are East Asian. The “American” kids are going into literature, poli-sci, ethnic studies, and other such fields. The students in university now are going to be designing the cutting edge in 20 years…

    • John R. De Lude

      The one MAJOR impediment to REAL progress in new technology & military weaponry is our own “Not So Illustrious Leaders” in the white house & congress. All of which would rather fund pet projects (Pork Barrel Projects) and additional bloated federal agencies that DO NOTHING except waste money.

  • Stephen Russell

    Test Laser on AEGIS cruiser or Perry class FFG, or new LPD NY class?
    But have turbine use other fuel for Power.
    Or use seawater hydro turbines in hull???

  • jsallison

    Aside from the graphic reminding me of Verne’s Nautilus, or at least several folks’ conception of it, I’m thinking fair weather weapon. How badly would foul weather reduce it’s effectiveness? That’s a rhetorical question, I don’t really expect an accurate answer…

    • belesari

      Not a whole lot really, besides targeting etc. But that would reduce any hull mounted weapon. The thing about free electron lasers is that they have the ability to be adjusted to different wavelength depending on local conditions which means it can over come cloudy skies, rain etc.

    • @Earlydawn

      In fairness, wavelength adjustment to atomospheric conditions is supposedly one of the big technological barriers still standing in the way of the DEWs for the F-22 and F-35.

  • ohwilleke

    I wonder how long the laser has to be on target to make an incoming go boom. The fact that the laser gets from ship to target faster doesn’t mean that it is a faster way to hit a large number of targets than say a CIWS.

    • joe

      No. The big test is going to be effective range and cyclic rate of fire; if lasers can provide a CIWS-equivalent “kill zone” out to 3-4,000 m, you’ve got an equivalent weapon. If it can reach further… you get through more firing cycles and hence have more chances of downing a threat.

      In an ideal (but probably unrealistic, at least to start with), it competes with SAM systems rather than CIWS. That’s probably a better model, anyway - at least for the moment; Lasers seem rather better suited for a ”you’re dead…and….you’re dead…and…” at longer ranges rather than the last-ditch CIWS “ohcrudohcrudfiremorefirelotsmorenownownow” approach.

    • DiverDan75

      being that they proved back in the 70’s that the “Star Wars project” would have to use a particle beam instead of a straight laser to make it through atmosphere from space, I would imagine that the Free Electron would be the same or at least similar to particle beam…hmmm so maybe it could also be fine tuned for underwater use?!?!?

      • DiverDan75

        that was suppose to be for jsallison

      • belesari

        A laser and a Particle beam are two different things. As was said before the free electron laser can change its fregency do that it can adjust for atmospheric disruption. and yes it could be used underwater not to sink ships but as a communications device.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      A point defence laser wouldn’t necessarily have to make an incoming threat “go boom”. For a guided threat (missile), it would be sufficient to weaken the airframe or disrupt/destroy aerodynamic controls. Same goes for small manned systems (boats, aircraft).

      For “dumb” weapons like rocket, artillery and mortar ammunition, a hard kill (“boom”) might be needed. But since these are not guided, they pose less of a threat to a ship at sea.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

  • David

    All that needs to be moved to acquire next target is small turret with few lenses/mirrors, much more agile than whole CIWS gun. And time needed to kill one target is much shorter. With CIWS, You need to shoot reasonable amout of bullets, until You see they hit, before switching to next target.

    • DiverDan75

      who’s to say that they wouldn’t be able to have 3 or 4 distribution stations and fiber optics to say a dome every 20 feet alongside with computer controlled mirrors at each dome…and every other one having a mirror wheel in it similar to a UPC reader so they could throw up a “wall” of laser patterns the whole broadside of the ship say 200 feet or so out so whatever hit it or tried to pass through it just kinda dissappeared? and the ones in between could be narrow beamed to individual targets….makes you wonder…just thinkin’

  • Maxtrue

    The ultimate weapon along these lines would combine kinetics and speed of light. Since light travels faster than anything, a fraction of mass would be devastating. Kinda like a burst of coherent plasma blasting through metal with both massive heat and mass. However, such a pulse would not be as flexible in adjusting to atmospheric conditions as a tunable laser working in conjunction with a phase conjugating mirror or other devises modifying the main laser pulse with its target laser to correct for atmospheric distortion.

    Sort of like combining a rail with a laser….

    • Maxtrue

      a particle beam weapon…

      • Thomas L. Nielsen

        You also run head-first into the theory of relativity: Nothing with a rest mass can achieve lightspeed, since this would require infinite energy. Don’t forget that the firing platform has to provide all the energy that goes into the projectile/beam/whatever, including losses due to inefficiencies, etc.

        Particle beams are feasible since the particles themselves are low-mass, and typically travel “only” at a high fraction of lightspeed.

        There’s an interesting comparison of energy levels at…. (scroll down until you reach the “Boom Table”).
        For instance, a 1 gram (approx 15,4 grains) mass travelling at 75% lightspeed carries a kinetic energy of roughly 11 kT TNT equivalent. Think “mid-size tactical nuke”. And if you want to bust the whole friggin’ planet, all you need is 1 kg (about 2 lbs) at 99,99% lightspeed: 1500 MT TNT equivalent.

        Regards & all,

        Thomas L. Nielsen

  • Max

    “Laser”? Methinks “laserS” will be needed, not just one, since the likely response to this kind of defense will be to attempt to overwhelm the ship’s defenses with vast numbers of missiles/projectiles, so future ships will need at least one on each side, if not a pair on each side.

    A thought: could the free-electron laser be used to target Submarines, too? The water would attenuate most laser beams, but maybe the beam could be tuned to travel enough distance through water to do a number on any sub within say, 10 miles. Now that would be a real equalizer! It wouldn’t be the old “subs and targets” routine any more.

    • Maxtrue

      Lasers I read could operate under water, but there is an even better water-based weapon that concentrates sound. Remember that game where you set one ball in motion and it passes the motion along a series of hanging balls? The information is open source and the NAVY is well at that race. It may be very important at imploding subs at a distance as well as damaging torpedoes. We certainly have some seriously strong sonar capabilities.DEW is already underwater, perhaps a great anti-mine capability. Especially in littoral space, but then my comments are completely open source based and as I am not an expert in such matters.


  • Richard Haven

    Sharks with frikin’ lasers…

    Maybe it’s real, maybe it’s the SDI all over again

  • Fiesta

    Yeah, speed of light object when it hits anything WILL penetrate. Line of sight means at best 50 miles if it’s high mounted on a ship. Don’t think bad weather would affect it cause who attacks in bad weather? Wonder if angles will effect the burn through of the Laser? Which also begs the question, if it hits a shell splash in the water… Or a chaff balloon?

    • Oblat

      The education level here is pretty shocking. Objects at the speed of light have infinite mass so they require infinite energy to get there.

      • Joe

        It’s more like the following scenario:

        X mass ship need Y amount of energy, X mass increased to store/harness greater energy however now needs greater Y amounts of energy.

        It’s a nasty spiral.

      • Maxtrue

        a little mass doesn’t slow the speed to insurmountable levels, does it?

    • blight

      If you think a beam of light is an object…?

  • Oblat

    The DoDs new policy of buying equipment that costs more but is less effective has breathed a whole new life into a lot of retro technology - such as lasers.

    Here we have a bunch of researchers who are making hay from America’s increasing nostalgia for the 50s. Good luck to them, American scientists have a long history of exploiting DoD gullibility to get basic science done.

    But the physics is a joke. You have to lase for 6 seconds to deliver the same energy as a single phalanx shell. So while the cost of making projectiles smart and guided falls at an increasing rate. The DoD is interested in the ultimate “dumb gun”.

  • George Bradshaw

    This time let us guard this technology and not give it away so that our enamies can use it against us like we always do.

    Clinton gave away our long range missel tech. to China. Lets not repeat the same mistake.

    • blight

      I can’t believe people are still doing this run-around.

      Loral gave away technical data to China after a rocket exploded on the pad. Nothing to do with Clinton. Please stop with the chain mail hysteria. Besides, a President cannot “give away” tech. We are not a monarchy. Try again.

  • jkd

    Meh, project Shiva Star sounded cooler

  • William C.

    Many are opposed to the resurrection of the whole “nuclear cruiser” concept but I believe with such technologies emerging we need to take a serious second look.

    Weren’t the Virgina class CGNs rather successful in service?

    • blight

      Got nothing against nuclear cruisers myself. What requirements make the submarine force exclusively nuclear versus surface warfare units?

    • praetorian

      I think so, they where decommisioned early though. I think they where up for refueling the
      reactors when the Navy thought that was too costly. They also didnt have LAMPS when
      they put in the Tomahawks so that was a negative as well. But along with the Long Beach
      CGN they never had to re-fuel at sea so they where great escorts to the carriers.

      • William C.

        They were pretty big ships, couldn’t they have placed the armored Tomahawk launchers in a spot that didn’t clutter up the landing pad for the helicopters?

  • Esoclectica

    Guys, Phalanx type CIWS use internal ammo storage that takes a long time to reload. The Navy normally mounts 1 CIWS covering about 270 degrees of the ship from the stern in frigates. Dstroyers and Cruisers are blessed with one on each side. No overlap in missile coverage. Carriers usually have 3-4 with very little overlap. Essentially, no Navy vessel has more than one 1 CIWS covering any threat axis. Phalanx mounts are mounted on universal joints so hey can spin and elevate quickly. They carry about 20 bursts of 50 rounds. and CANNOT be reloaded in combat. They are currently being replaced by 9 shot RAM launchers that cannot be reloaded in combat. A weapon that does not run out of ammo would be nice.

    • Oblat

      A weapon that does not run out of ammo isn’t much use when your hull is on fire.

      • crackedlenses

        Tanks and machine guns were unreliable when they first hit the field…….

        • Maxtrue

          a few follow-ups.

          Adding mass to a “beam” does indeed decrease its speed. Who denied that? By how much? Isn’t it very small? So particle beams or even perhaps future rail guns can spit plasma balls exceeding the velocity of today’s ammo.

          Sensors and guidance tend to be in missile nose cone. Lasers could be tuned to disrupt circuitry, there is a fine line hear between various electromagnetic energy beams and their disabling power. Doesn’t take long to punch through fuel tank or propellant.

          Today’s turret systems developed for ABL can track for how long?

          I suggest we are pursuing various levels of protection. The further away the enemy, the easier to zap them. It may turn out that less powerful Phalanx rail systems can fire a cloud of mass in the right direction without the technical hurdles of large rail components.

          Let’s hope the Chinese can buy pieces of it as they likely did the F-117, shot down over Serbia, or directly from the defense department.

          • Maxtrue

            thank you defense tech……I try…..

  • coolhand77

    Having a “mix” of different defensive armament would be a better stratagy till all the bugs are worked out to begin with. Laser for extreme LOS defense, RAMs for mid range, and Phalanx for anything that gets past the first two layers. Same reason I suggested the test bed for the rail guns should be a heavy/battle cruiser or a battleship…so if the new sci fi guns fail, you can switch over to the old standbys to complete mission and get the ship out of harm’s way.

    “Ruttin’ lasers!”

  • Roland

    Russia might have this technology already. Just buy it from them.

    • belesari

      I doubt it. Russians have concentrated on EM weaponry not on Directed engergy weapons.

  • sail4evr

    The time on target for a laser to burn through or deform and make ineffective depends on the material. Obviously burning through an engine block would take much longer than punching holes in a fiberglass boat like Iran is building. However what is the most effective area of an attacking speedboat armed with cruise missles to target. Sinking is not enough if they still have time to fire missiles.

  • Jack D. Ripper

    I work with metal cutting lasers in the 3KW range. The big thing is how much wattage you can put in a given diameter and what you want to do with it. Softening an area takes much less power/sq than does cutting it. If all you want to do is to heat an area to several hundred degrees (burning through insulation/detonating explosives/propellant, etc) that takes even less power per square so you could have a large beam size do the job quite well. It doesn’t necessarily mean cutting through metal, but if the optics are up to the task, then a wide beam focussed dynamically would work fine.

  • Steve Skobrak

    Just like all other weapon technology, someone with a need for $$$ will probably sell us out with no care about our Country. The best weapons we have mean nothing, if we can’t stop the giving away of our technology. Just look at the Stealth technology which someone sold to the Chinese? They now have it on their planes too. Yes, the guy got a long prison term, but the Chinese got the info they wanted. The U.S. cannot keep a secret. What a shame. The technology we need to develop is “HOW TO KEEP A SECRET”

    • blight

      The technology isn’t given away, it’s stolen by insiders in those companies for financial gain. Greed is good.

  • Vince

    Hang anyone who gives the design away to enemy.

  • hippie

    We just all need to get along….

  • Dr Evil

    the key to this plan is the giant laser. It was invented by the noted Cambridge physicist Dr. Parsons. Therefore, we shall call it the Alan Parsons Project.

  • Ivan Zelenka

    Negatives of Direct Energy Devices:-
    1. Current laser devices loose focused energy due to distance and cloud/mist.
    2. Due to current low energy at focus (on target), the laser needs to stay on the target for a period of time.
    This entails the pointing system of the laser to be extremely accurate to provide a steady focus on one point of a target.
    The accuracy of the point device has to increase by a magnitude to also compensate for evasive movement of the target and movement of the vehicle carrying the laser (ship, plane ground vehicle).
    3. Cheap counter measures of a target by increasing its reflectivity (mirrored surface) and/or to spin it (practical for missiles and shells.
    4. Energy requirements are vast to provide a damaging amount of energy on target. If the Energy is stored in capacitors, it will still need a period of time to be replenished allowing the weapon to be only fired in bursts which are time dependant on store replenishment.
    5. Reflective beam directors (mirrors for pointing the beam), loose their cohesion at high energy states; the more energy you pump into the beam the more chance the pointing mirror will be destroyed.

  • Ivan Zelenka

    Benefits of Direct Energy Devices:-
    1. The device mention in the article uses electrons in a coherent beam, not light. Its beam would not be dissipated by clouds/mist and would burn through.
    2. A beam of high energy electrons impacting a target would need less time to damage the target due to the higher energy the beam carries. The energy of a laser is in the heat liberated from the focused light, the energy of the high energy electron beam would be kinetic and heat, providing robust damage in a shorter time.
    A pointing device needs higher accuracy the greater distance to a target, to reduce the need for such accuracy in a pointing device, the tactical deployment of such a system would dictate it be used most effectively at extremely short range and therefore as a replacement for close in weapon systems currently deployed on warships, not to replace long range anti aircraft missiles.

  • Ivan Zelenka

    Benefits of Direct Energy Devices:- (continued…)
    3. The energy focused on a target would not be reflected by a mirrored surface due to the kinetic force of the impacting electrons, the surface of the target would be pitted/roughened in a short time. Spinning a target to spread the energy would slow the amount of energy impacting any single point, but once the energy (at such short distance) had weakened the target surface, the spin will act against the target causing its structure to fail under the combine centrifugal force and weakened skin.
    4. Storeage of energy will advance with deployable superconducting capacitors currently been developed by the car industry for electric vehicles. These will allow extremely fast charge, and discharge without the issues of inefficentcy caused by componenet heating.
    5. High energy electron beams are not directed by mirrors, they are focused by magnets, similar to those in the back of an old tube TV (not flatscreen).

    In a nutshell, if the tactical use of a high energy weapon is correctly established (CIWS relacement), they could be shortly deployed.

  • Iran Tech

    Work with Iran engineers it can be sorted within 2 years

    • blight

      Iranian Western-trained scientists and engineers are competent, but Iran’s techbase isn’t likely to field lasers in two years. The United States is unlikely to field in two years either…

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