Navy Mulls Lasers, Rail Guns for Existing Destroyers

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The Navy is considering a range of potential technological upgrades for its fleet of DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to give the ships next-generation weapons, greater fuel efficiency and a reduced radar signature, service officials said.

The Navy currently has 62 DDG 51s currently in service and six Flight IIA-model destroyers under construction. The service plans to potentially build as many as 22 next-generation Flight III DDG 51s, said Capt. Mark Vandroff, DDG 51 program manager.

Laser weapons and electromagnetic rail guns are among some of the upgrades being considered for the Navy’s fleet of destroyers, Vandroff explained.

The recent deployment and operational use of the Navy’s Laser Weapons System, or LaWS, aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf highlighted the strategic advantage and cost-saving elements of ship-board directed energy weapons. Navy officials say LaWS can be fired against incoming threats for less than one dollar per shot -- exponentially cheaper than the cost of many defensive missiles.

The Navy is also developing an electromagnetic rail gun which it plans to equip on a Joint High Speed Vessel this coming summer.

The potential upgrades across the fleet will also be geared toward making the ship easier to upgrade throughout its life cycle, allowing new technologies to easily integrate with existing systems on the ship, Vandroff said.

Also, by 2019 and 2020, destroyers will be equipped with an upgraded Block II Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program, or SEWIP.

Additional considerations include creating more fuel and power-efficient gas turbine engines for destroyers. This would include working on the shafting and propellers to make the ship more fuel-efficient, Vandroff explained.

Also, advanced materials can be used to make a compressor engineered to move air more efficiently and get more power out of every gallon of fuel, he said.

Vandroff said finding ways to lower the radar cross-section of destroyers is an ongoing process that is likely to continue well into future years. The idea is to appear much smaller to potential enemy radar or be much more difficult to detect.

"This is an ongoing process. DDG 51s were designed to have a much lower radar cross-section," he said. "We are going to change the shape of the steps on the ladders in order to have a little bit of an effect on radar cross-section."

Flight IIA DDG 51s includes a hangar for helicopters and many of them are engineered with an Aegis radar system called SPY-1D designed to detect incoming missile threats.

Vandroff said cooperation between the Navy and Missile Defense Agency has consistently resulted in worthwhile upgrades for the Aegis radar and combat system.

"We have learned to adapt capability in each weapons system to take on a greater and greater variety of ballistic missile threats," he said. "We're getting our ships to be more capable over time against a greater number of threats."

Three DDG 51 Flight IIA ships are now under construction at Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc.'s shipyard in Mississippi, and three more Flight IIAs are being worked on at General Dynamics Corp.'s Bath Iron Works facility in Maine. Flight IIA DDG 51 cost about $1.5 billion to build.

Three Flight III DDG 51s, which will include a more powerful, next-generation radar called Air and Missile Defense Radar, or AMDR, are planned as part of a multi-year destroyer production contract. Ten more Flight IIIs are slated for a similar deal to build DDG 51s from 2018 to 2022.

Once the non-recurring engineering costs are spent on the first several Flight III DDG 51s, then each new Flight III will cost approximately $1.7 to $1.8 billion.

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