Navy Destroyer adds HELIOS lasers to its arsenal
A photo illustration of HELIOS destroying a target
Illustration of Lockheed Martin
Threats to naval ships in the form of drone swarms and anti-ship missiles continue to increase. Now, after decades of experimentation, the Navy is moving closer to a cost-effective solution that can deter and counter aerial threats at sea.
The Navy received its first high-energy laser with an integrated optical blender and surveillance system, or HELIOS system, from manufacturer Lockheed Martin in the third quarter of fiscal 2022, according to the company. The system, which can fire more than 60 kilowatts of directed energy at targets up to five miles away, is currently being installed on a Flight IIA Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which is undergoing modernization, a company spokesman said National security in an email.
“HELIOS improves the overall effectiveness of the ship’s combat system to ward off future threats and provide additional protection for sailors, and we understand the need to offer scalable solutions tailored to the Navy’s priorities,” said Rick Cordaro, vice president of advanced Lockheed Martin product solutions in a press release. “HELIOS provides a solid foundation for the phased deployment of robust and powerful laser weapon systems.”
HELIOS is part of the Navy Laser Family of Systems, a collection of platforms that the service sees as “the foundation of an incremental strategy to increase laser weapons capability,” according to Navy budget documents.
The service requested approximately $35 million for the family of systems for its 2023 budget, in which the first system is expected to be operational at sea.
The weapons system “addresses surface warfare and counterintelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance gaps with the ability to blind and destroy unmanned aerial systems and defeat fast coastal attack ships,” the documents say.
The technology represents significant advances over current systems and options for countering unmanned aerial vehicles and anti-ship missiles. Surface-to-air missiles and Gatling guns require deep magazines on ships and have a poor trade-in price when used against cheap drones, said the Congressional Research Service in an August report.
Also, reloading Navy ship magazines requires ships to travel potentially hundreds of miles over a period of hours to get to a safe zone, according to the report “Navy Shipboard Lasers: Background and Issues for Congress.”
An adversary like China has access to multiple UAVs and anti-ship missiles, and Beijing has “high capacity” to produce more. This could price the Navy’s ability to affordably defend itself, the report said.
“The biggest concern right now in the space of emerging threats is how to target, track and disable potential swarms or saturation attacks by small unmanned vessels such as micro-UAVs or even small surface ships, given the Navy’s concerns about this,” said Tristan Sauer, Land Domain Analyst at data analysis and consulting company GlobalData.
As manned and unmanned teaming — the collaboration between a manned platform and one or more drones — becomes a more viable technology, it is spreading across the battlefield, even in countries with fewer resources, he noted.
“That’s where laser weapon systems come in because they have this extremely low cost per shot, there’s this whole deep magazine,” Sauer said.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted how crippling a lack of ammunition supplies can be, he noted. Some defense companies have expressed their struggle to keep up with manufacturing demand while also dealing with supply chain issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fact that these weapons require so little energy just to produce such significant effects, either lethal or non-lethal – makes them a key and critical factor in ensuring the sustainability of operations, particularly in the case of high-intensity conflicts Intensity,” said Sauer.
The previous iteration of the Laser Weapon System, or LaWs, solid-state rapid response system was a temporary installation on the USS Ponce. The system struggles to identify tiny targets, such as the smallest class of drones, he said.
This is one of the problems that HELIOS aims to address. According to Lockheed Martin, the system is designed for continuous operation using the ship’s available power rather than adding another power magazine.
Similarly, the new system has advantages over previous laser weapons in terms of performance and positioning, a company spokesman said. LaWs could only reach up to 30 kilowatts of power and was not intended as a long-term installation, they noted.
The HELIOS installation coincides with ongoing Aegis modernization efforts in San Diego, California, the spokesman said. The Aegis Weapons System or AWS is the Navy’s command and control system in operation since the 1980s. Lockheed Martin also has a contract to modernize the system for destroyers and other ships.
HELIOS will be integrated into his ship and the Aegis combat system, allowing for permanent installation. The weapon uses spectral beam-combined fiber lasers, giving it higher beam quality than LaWs’ “incoherently combined” six high-quality fiber lasers, the spokesman said.
Because the laser has the ability to blind satellites in addition to its destruction abilities, it has “game-changing” combat abilities, they added.
According to a Lockheed Martin white paper published last year, the system has demonstrated its ability to repeatedly hit a high-speed target at tactically extended distances. It closed the fire control circuit on a track provided by the Surface Combat System Center’s Aegis Combat Sensor after achieving coarse and fine optical tracking, the paper said.
The Optical Dazzling Interdictor Navy, or ODIN, enables the system’s dazzling technology by jamming the electro-optical and infrared sensors on enemy platforms. It’s a capability present on other ships, but the HELIOS program marks the first time a ship has fully integrated the system into its command and control architecture.
The laser weapon also has a surveillance mission in addition to its laser destruction and blinding abilities. The spokesman declined to comment on how his surveillance skills will be tested.
“HELIOS is a multi-mission laser weapon system and all of its missions, including surveillance, will evolve over time as the Navy conducts operations at sea and develops tactics, training and procedures for this new warfare capability,” they said .
How the weapon will be used in the maritime sphere is still up for debate. When asked if the Navy was considering other ships to install the laser weapon, the Lockheed Martin spokesman declined to comment.
“HELIOS is scalable and adaptable to other ship classes and combat systems,” reads an email.
The Navy has shown interest in laser weapons on various ships. Last year it tested another system – the Solid State Laser – Technology Maturation Laser Weapons System Demonstrator – on the San Antonio-class ship USS Portland. The service used the LWSD to disable a drone during an at-sea test in 2020.
The Navy’s 2023 funding request would support the uninstallation and hardware disposition of the 100-kilowatt system, according to the service.
The next step for the HELIOS program is to put the system through its paces after installation. According to the budget proposal, the tests at sea will begin in 2023.
“The Navy will learn much about the use of this groundbreaking multi-mission capability once warfighters begin deploying HELIOS in operational maritime environments and the lessons learned will inform future development efforts,” the spokesman said.
The laser completed land-based testing on Wallops Island, Virginia, earlier this year, they added.
The main challenge for the program is continued integration into the Navy’s multi-layered defenses.
“Integration with both the ship and the combat system and marinization are critical to provide targeted energy warfare capability in a stressful maritime environment,” they said. “The system must function as an integral part of a layered defense architecture such as the Aegis Combat System on DDG 51-class destroyers and be able to fit within the space, weight and power constraints of the ship.”
While the laser is designed to meet the space, weight, and power requirements for the Arleigh Burke-class ships, they found that it could be used for integration with other ship types or ships that have a combat system other than Aegis , would have to be redesigned. The “inherently scalable and modular design architecture” enables this process, they added.
The system could be scaled up to 120 kilowatts and more depending on the space and power constraints of the ship, according to the white paper. This could even include ships in the Navy’s future fleet, such as the Constellation-class guided-missile frigates and the next-generation guided-missile destroyer, the DDG(X).
“I see the Navy as the natural first step for the US military to deploy laser weapon systems because of the large power supply available to naval surface warfare ships,” Sauer said.
But when it comes to installing the laser on smaller ships, space and power constraints are critical design hurdles the Navy has yet to overcome, he said.
As the United States works to develop laser technology, its opponents are not far behind. While neither China nor Russia has the kind of advanced laser systems available in the United States, lasers could become more widespread in all fields in a few years, said Mick Ryan, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Putting her on a ship … is one thing, but I think if you see her on land, maybe that’s a little bit of a stretch,” he said.
Russia has particularly boasted about using an experimental Zadira laser system during its invasion of Ukraine, he noted. The system is unlikely to have had much impact given the nation’s tendency to overstate its technological capabilities, but the use of UAS in the conflict will push the technology forward, he added.
The Navy’s laser weapon — and other Pentagon-controlled energy technologies like the Army’s Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense System — can send a powerful message to adversaries, he added.
“You’re trying to deter a potential adversary by having these advanced technologies, but you also want to make sure the deterrence and influence are effective when they don’t work and you have to fight,” he said.
Subjects: Naval News, Lasers