The U.S. Navy is installing laser weapon systems on nine destroyers as part of an evaluation of the weapons’ potential. Soon, nine destroyers will carry directed energy weapons.
The U.S. Navy is installing laser weapon systems on nine destroyers as part of an evaluation of the weapons’ potential.
Eight of the lasers are lower power weapons designed to dazzle or blind enemy sensors and drones.
The remaining weapon, HELIOS, has the potential to become an anti-missile defense system.
The U.S. Navy is expanding its deployment of a new laser weapon while simultaneously preparing to utilize a more powerful laser.
The Navy is arming more destroyers with the nonlethal Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN) system. Meanwhile, the service will install a stronger laser, the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS), on the destroyer USS Preble (seen above) later this year.
Three Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers carry the ODIN. By the end of 2021, six destroyers will adopt the laser, with two more to follow in subsequent years, per U.S. Naval Institute News.
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As a nonlethal weapon system, ODIN is designed not to kill and destroy, but instead, blind and break. The laser is meant to zap electro-optical sensors, like digital video cameras and infrared cameras, aboard drones, preventing remote operators from guiding them and using the cameras to gather intelligence. Even relatively low powered lasers can permanently damage camera sensors, as seen here:
HELIOS, on the other hand, is a considerably more powerful laser with bigger ambitions. The weapon can blind camera sensors like ODIN, but the Navy hopes it’s powerful enough to destroy incoming cruise missiles.
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U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers all have a limited number of vertical launch silos, each capable of carrying anti-air, anti-missile, anti-ship, and anti-submarine missiles and rockets. The Navy must carefully weigh offensive versus defensive weapons when loading these silos. The rise of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy means the Navy must embark more missiles to sink ships in wartime. The more defensive missiles a ship carries, the fewer offensive missiles it can bring along.
The Navy hopes HELIOS could become an effective anti-missile system, capable of downing incoming subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles like the Russian SS-N-27 “Sizzler” or the Chinese YJ-18. HELIOS could zero in on an incoming cruise missile and torch it, focusing the laser’s extreme heat on the warhead, sensor, or control surfaces.
A warhead kill would explode the missile, while a sensor kill could prevent it from locating its target. A control surface kill would involve burning off the missiles’s wings, making it aerodynamically unstable and sending it crashing into the sea.
Using a laser against a missile requires lots of power. The laser must focus on a single point on the missile long enough for the heat to have an effect. Lasers also lose intensity as they travel through the atmosphere, especially sea fog and mist, and they must be strong enough to resist the loss of energy while still intercepting missiles at a safe distance. The Navy isn’t saying how powerful HELIOS is, but it clearly thinks the new laser has a shot at the anti-missile mission.
If HELIOS works, it would provide the ship operating it with an anti-missile system with a theoretically unlimited number of shots. That would allow the ship to carry fewer defensive missiles like the Evolved Sea Sparrow in its armored silos, and pack more missiles with an offensive punch.