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Navy Considers Laser Weapons for Carriers

Navy laser successfully shoots down an unmanned drone during an on-board test of a laser prototype. (Navy Photo)
Navy laser successfully shoots down an unmanned drone during an on-board test of a laser prototype. (Navy Photo)

The Navy may outfit is new Ford-class aircraft carriers with a wide range of laser weapons to shoot down incoming missiles and eventually provide offensive fire power, senior service official said.

With this future in mind, the Ford-class carriers are built with three times the electrical power generating capacity compared to Nimitz-class carriers, Moore said.

The USS Ford is able to generate 13,800 volts of electrical power, more than three times the 4,160 volts that a Nimitz-class carrier generates, said Rear Adm. Thomas Moore, Program Executive Officer, Carriers.

As the technology matures, Navy leaders anticipate using a number of lasers to assist existing missiles designed for carrier defense.

"The current technology in directed energy, with the power and cooling required, means that the installations are big and they are heavy – but the technology is rapidly advancing. I’ve seen some concepts that start to get the sizes down," said Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, Director of Air Warfare.

While much less expensive than defensive missiles engineered aboard the Ford-class carriers such as the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile and the Rolling Airframe Missile, laser technology requires a large amount of on-board, transportable electrical power.

"There are finite numbers of missiles and finite installations on the carrier. If you can put a directed energy piece on there with its lower cost per round, you can see where you can start to reduce the cost overall and measurably increase the protection of the ship," Manazir said. "The aircraft carrier is a wonderful platform for the installation of directed energy -- currently for defensive use and, as technology gets more advanced, you can look at offensive laser technology."

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The USS Ford is built with four 26-megawatt generators, bringing a total of 104 megawatts to the ship. This helps support the ship's developing systems such as its Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System, or EMALS, and provides power for future systems such as lasers and rail-guns, Moore added.

The USS Ford also needs sufficient electrical power to support its new electro-magnetic catapult, dual-band radar and Advanced Arresting Gear, among other electrical systems.

"Ford is designed with significant electrical margin for the future because we see more and more electrical systems coming on," Manazir said. "It is also designed with energy storage capability which takes the power out of the reactor and stores it at a certain level. Then you can take from that storage capacity to operate individual systems."

As technology evolves, laser weapons may eventually replace some of the missile systems on board aircraft carriers.

"Lasers need to get up to about 300 kilowatts to start making them effective. The higher the power you get the more you can accomplish. I think there will be a combination of lasers and rail guns in the future. I do think at some point, lasers could replace some existing missile systems. Lasers will provide an overall higher rate of annihilation," Moore said. 

The Ford-class ships are engineered with a redesigned island, slightly larger deck space and new weapons elevators in order to achieve a 33-percent increase in sortie-generation rate. The new platforms are built to launch more aircraft and more seamlessly support a high-op tempo.

The new weapons elevators allow for a much more efficient path to move and re-arm weapons systems for aircraft. The elevators can take weapons directly from their magazines to just below the flight deck, therefore greatly improving the sortie-generation rate by making it easier and faster to re-arm planes, Moore said

The Navy has already deployed one laser system, called the Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, which has been operational for months.

LaWS uses heat energy from lasers to disable or destroy targets fast, slow, stationary and moving targets. The system has successfully incinerated UAVs and other targets in tests shots, and has been operational aboard an amphibious transport dock in the Persian Gulf, the USS Ponce.

The scalable weapon is designed to destroy threats for about $59-cents per shot, an amount that is exponentially lower than the hundreds of thousands or millions needed to fire an interceptor missile such as the Standard Missile-2, Navy officials explained.

While at sea, sailors have been using the LaWS for targeting and training exercises every day and the weapon has even been used to disable and destroy some targets, service officials said.

Navy sailors and engineers have discovered some unanticipated intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance value from the laser weapons system by using its long-range telescope to scan for targets, Navy officials said.

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at kris.osborn@military.com

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