She blinded me with science.

She blinded me with science.

We may not have servant robots or flying cars, but it America is finally ready to deploy functional lasers. Next year, the USS PONCE will receive the military’s first field-ready Laser Weapon System (LaWS) . The navy, and nation, are justifiably excited to finally embrace military laser technology. However, it is important for us to realize the tactical and technological limitations of our new system before rushing too quickly to rely on them too often. She blinded me with science. Lasers still face great challenges from the weather, ability to detect hits, and power demands.

Red Sky in Morning

Lasers are nothing more than light: deadly, deadly light. Like all light, lasers as at the mercy of the atmospheric conditions they encounter. In particular, lasers are at the mercy of refraction and scattering. Refraction changes the angle that occurs as light moves through an atmosphere of varying density and makeup. As lasers are designed for longer ranges, or short range lasers encounter areas of differing conditions, the trajectory will change. This could pose challenges as targets move through areas of varying range and atmospheric density over long ranges.

Fog and Techno, LaWS' greatest enemies.

Fog and Techno, LaWS’ greatest enemies.

Laser light weakens over distance. Navigation types know this as “nominal range,” the range at which light can be seen in perfect conditions. A military laser’s effective destructive range is shorter, but the concepts are the same. “Luminous range” is the actual range of light due to atmospheric conditions. That range can be shortened by scattering caused by atmospheric conditions or precipitation. Lasers will be affected by such conditions as well, their effectiveness ranges shrinking in fog, rain, snow, etc… Depending how far the navy is willing to rely on laser technology, this could pose significant challenges to a fleet more beholden to the weather than before.

Eyes on Target

Unlike kinetic rounds, lasers cannot be tracked en route to their target. An SM-2 explosion can be detected, the 76MM’s MK 98 tracks each splash and can be corrected by operators, and the CIWS system tracks each CIWS round for automatic ballistic correction. The refraction and scattering effects, combined with the time needed for LaWS to be effective, make judging effectiveness particularly important. The laser is not powerful enough to cause immediate destruction of target detectable by radar. If atmospheric interference prevents an IR tracker from detecting the laser heat signature on target, there is no way to verify trajectory and correct. This imposes, at times, a dangerous “wait and see” aspect to the use of LaWS. If a ship is engaging multiple C-802’s, and a LaWS has (hypothetically) range of 6nm, 37 seconds is not a long time for a ship to worry if its measures are effective.

Not Enough Potatoes in the World

Enough for a small city, or a batter of space-age weaponry.

Enough for a small city, or a batter of space-age weaponry.

Missiles and guns come with the kinetic energy stored either in fuel or a charge; 100% of a laser’s power is drawn from the ship’s power supply. This means greater demands from the ship’s grid, as well as a greater scope of variation on grid demand as a laser powers up and down. This pumping of massive demand could cause problems for EOOW’s trying to maintain plant stability. Lasers will naturally require either vast changes in plant layout to support greater power production, or a collection of either batteries or capacitors to act as a buffer for the fluctuations in power demands. There is also the possibility of adding nuclear-powered defensive laser batteries to our mostly defenseless carriers, especially if they were allowed to increase their power output. What some are starting to call the “most expensive fleet auxiliary” will gain a invaluable punch for self-defense and defense of ships in company. For lasers to be effective, the projected power “magazine depth” under real combat conditions will need to be determined and supported.

Proper Room Clearance

When "arrr" becomes "aaahhhhhh!"

When “arrr” becomes “aaahhhhhh!”

As Peter A. Morrision, program officer for ONR’s Sold-State Laser Technology Maturation Program has said, “the future is here.” Before calling the, “all clear,” on this future, the navy should properly clear the room. Laser technology has amazing cost savings and lethal possibilities, but still has serious weaknesses in weather susceptibility, verification of hits, and power demands that need solving. Other shadowy possibilities exist, such as enemies employing laser-reflective coatings that would require lasers to change wavelength to increase effectiveness. As the technology stands now, it is a worthy display of American technological supremacy that saves money on CIWS rounds and SM-2’s for limited instances. For the technology to truly carry the battles, it must be far more powerful and far better supported by ship-board systems.

Posted by LT Matthew Hipple in Hard Power, Navy
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  • While not a claimed feature of this system, presumably the laser could also blind the pilots of manned aircraft.

    • Yes. That’s the first thing they tell us at the Laser Safety Officer class. That said, I didn’t mention that downfall because a whole list other weapons also pose danger to pilots. Even SPY can mess with pilots.

      • I was thinking in terms of blinding hostile pilots, not friendly ones.

      • Got it, I was already thinking about blue-blue problems so I assumed that’s what you meant. Same should apply. The soviets invented lasers to blind spy satellites. I’m sure the Mk1 eyeball is far more sensitive.

  • Has anybody tested S band RF illumination from SPY-1 on a drone? We’ve had that in service since the early 90s. I recall that VAB on my console but no word on how effective it was.

    Nice feedback on lasers but nothing new here. I say the faster we get this into the field the more lessons learned we can take back to the lab.

    • I always wondered if you could use a concentrated high-power beam of SPY to neutralize small boat operators during a FAC/FIAC attack…

  • Three downsides to using lasers at sea: amount of energy needed to be effective; Lasers are line of sight, will we mount these on a mast?; The ocean environment can change quickly, from azure blue skies unhindered by clouds or other water vapor or so deeply in the clack that you couldn’t use your laser against the ship just outboard of you. Mr. Hipple: Attenuation can be overcome by power…but can you provide enough without crippling the ship?

    • That is why I suggested carriers, or more generally flat-tops, as the best platform. As of now, they’re admittedly close to defenseless. They have the flexibility on weight, they have the space, and they have the power. The publicly advertised output of a CVN plant is around 15%. If necessary (which is a question for a nuke EOOW in a room with a laser tech), we could investigate raising that output. Civilian reactors typically operate at a much higher output.

      And understood about attenuation, but I am still at the mercy of the weather. That high-power laser that could shoot a high-altitude target at 15nm suddenly dropping to 6nm because of severe fog is going to be a pain. Of course, everything is give and take. No weapon is perfect.

      • During your research and training, was there any mention of capacitor research? I’m given to believe that it’ll take highly efficient, quick to re-charge capacitors to make high energy lasers efficient enough for military use. Also, is there any mention of chemical lasers or is this a non-starter in the military realm?

      • I only mentioned capacitors in passing, and must admit I only thought of them in theory, outside any particular research into charges and the like. As for laser types, I’d direct you to McGrath/Walton’s article, “The Time for Lasers is Now.”

  • CDR_Ret

    Refraction works both ways. If you can see the target, then you can hit it via the same optical path. And only a fool would depend on a single weapon system for all conditions.

    • True, but lasers are of a higher power than normal light. You can’t see targets you CAN hit, which leads into the second point. True, we use a bevy of weapons, no one is suggesting we get rid of CIWS, Chaff, and the rest for lasers alone. However, none of those systems are defeated by fog. To use lasers, you have to make up for the weight/space by removing something else that doesn’t have the weaknesses lasers have. True, it’s a give-and-take, but before we deploy these onboard anything but flat-tops, we’re going to need them far better proven.

  • bobhope1

    Couple of thoughts: 1) Almost certainly not an eye safe wavelength ( probably around 1um ). So, tactically would be unwise to use in any circumstance where opposing personnel may be exposed, as that would immediately result in opposition flooding battlefield with dirt cheap dedicated personnel blinders. 2) This thing is strictly fair weather, and as it stands unlikely to be able to interact effectively with anything coming in at sea level and several Mach numbers. I suspect it can only really shoot down drones and perhaps burn a hole in a slow boat. 3) As for blinding/dazzling of sensors? If ~1um will not do much to MIDIR and TIR sensors which are well protected. Visual sensors probably, but the IIR tracking system of some missiles terminal homing no chance. So the question is in regards cost benefit – does it represent anything of substance relative to the vast sums and lofty goals initially presented?