Since the birth of the LASER technology, efforts were being continuously made by several military forces to develop LASER weapons. Recently, the United States Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Preble (DDG-88) has been equipped with new type of high-energy laser weapon with integrated optical distributors and surveillance laser-directed energy systems.
This is the first time in the world that such a powerful laser weapon has been installed on an Aegis warship, and it seems to be a breakthrough improvement in the field of Naval Warfare. So what are the uses of this laser weapon? What is its real performance? And how do other countries compare with the United States in the field of Laser Weapons?
First of all, this multi-purpose laser system, which is known as HELIOS has got some offensive capabilities. Its high-energy laser beam can destroy small UAVs and ships, etc, and can replace the originally installed PHALANX close-in defense system to a certain extent. In theory, this laser weapon can destroy subsonic missiles such as incoming anti-ship missiles and cruise missiles. After all, the response speed of laser weapons is much faster than that of traditional naval guns and air-defense missiles. It can be seen from the concept map released by Lockheed Martin that the HELIOS system installed in front of the warship bridge is firing lasers to shoot down incoming missiles, and this position was originally installed for the Phalanx close-in defense system.
At present, the navies of various countries use a combination of air-defense missiles and fast-firing cannons (CIWS) to intercept anti-ship missiles or close-range aircrafts. The advantage of the close-range artillery is that their reaction speed to incoming aerial threats is relatively fast, but they have several shortcomings also. Their firepower is limited and the amount of ammunition they use is also limited. They can easily hit subsonic missiles but they have low success rate while intercepting supersonic missiles. Because of this, China and the United States have developed short-range interceptor missiles. The United States has the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, while China has the HQ-10 missile.
Compared with the traditional head-to-head interception method, the response speed and attack power of laser weapons are much better and much faster. As long as the power of the laser transmitter is large enough, it can burn all kinds of incoming aircrafts and missiles in a very short period of time, even supersonic anti-ship missiles can be easily destroyed by using laser weapons. At present, various close defense systems of the US Navy has the capability to intercept supersonic anti-ship missiles.
In addition of shooting down anti-ship and cruise missiles or drones, the laser weapon system can also be used to disable optical sensors of enemy warships and aircrafts. The same method can also be applied to the incoming missile to make the missile’s seeker or other equipment fail and lose its attack capability. In addition, the laser weapon system also has its own sensors that can locate and track incoming targets.
Lockheed Martin has very high ambitions from their developed HELIOS Laser weapon system. The laser weapon installed this time on the ship is only one model or prototype. Lockheed Martin also intends to provide other HELIOS systems to the United States Navy for installation on other Arleigh Burke-class warships. It also plans to increase the power of the laser transmitter to 150 kilowatts, indicating that the current power is still too small.
However, laser weapons also have very obvious shortcomings. The biggest disadvantage is that their ability to strike and intercept targets decrease when the weather conditions are poor. Therefore, as for now, laser weapons cannot completely replace naval artillery guns and missiles, but warships equipped with laser weapon systems can better adapt to the combat environment and perform better in the warzone.
In terms of laser weapons, in addition to the United States being able to lead the development in the world, there is also a country with strong technical strength in field of laser weapons, that is China. The Chinese Military has installed laser suppression sighting systems on 99 series battle tanks, and there is a lot of evidence that china has even installed similar systems on armed helicopters. So why does China does not have a HELIOS system similar to that of the United States to install on warships?
In fact, the US laser weapon mentioned above is just a test system, and has not reached the state of mass production. The most direct reason is that the power is too small and the range is too close. At present, it only has the ability to destroy UAVs.
Many countries in the world are developing similar laser weapons, but in fact none of them can reach the state of mass production and active service, and they are still at the point of hitting small drones. At this stage, the main purpose of laser weapons is to cause dizziness and blindness. When laser weapons are really practical, laser weapons will definitely have the ability to intercept supersonic and hypersonic missiles flying at several Machs, and can also directly attack important parts of warships at close and long range.
In order for laser weapons to achieve such capabilities, in addition to the technology of laser weapons themselves, they must also have very strong energy supply capabilities, so this is why the People’s Liberation Army Navy 055 destroyer has far more power supply as compared to similar warships. China plans to equip this series of warships with laser weapons same like the USA.
At present, shipborne laser weapons in various countries are still in the early stage of development, and there is still a long way to go before they are fully acceptable in practical use. Only by continuously improving technology can high-energy lasers be equipped as soon as possible, so that naval warships have better performance on both offensive and defensive ways.