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HELIOS laser weapons system

The US destroyer Preble will be the first to be equipped with the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler With Surveillance system, or HELIOS, in 2021, US military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported on 27 May 2019. HELIOS will function as a faster close-in weapon that uses light beams to "defend against Chinese or Russian cruise missiles," the report said, claiming that China's in-development drone swarm is also a target of the laser.

Lockheed Martins HELIOS laser weapons system may eventually replace Gatling guns and missile launchers on US Navy ships. HELIOS, named afterthe god of the sun in Greek mythology, shoots laser beams far more powerful than anything that has ever been used on a US Navy ship before. The beams are planned to be 150 kilowatts. In contrast, the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) that was mounted on the amphibious transport dock of the USS Ponce in 2014 had a laser power of about 30 kilowatts.

On 01 March 2018 the U.S. Navy awarded Lockheed Martin a $150 million contract, with options worth up to $942.8 million, for the development, manufacture and delivery of two high power laser weapon systems, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and counter-Unmanned Aerial System (counter-UAS) capabilities, by fiscal year 2020. With the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) system, Lockheed Martin will help the Navy take a major step forward in its goal to field laser weapon systems aboard surface ships.

HELIOS combines three key capabilities, brought together for the first time in one weapon system:

  • A high-energy laser system: The high-energy fiber laser will be designed to counter unmanned aerial systems and small boats. The energy and thermal management system will leverage Lockheed Martin experience on Department of Defense programs, and the cooling system will be designed for maximum adaptability onboard ships. In addition, Lockheed Martin will bring decades of shipboard integration experience, reducing risk and increasing reliability.
  • A long-range ISR capability: HELIOS sensors will be part of an integrated weapon system, designed to provide decision-makers with maximum access to information. HELIOS data will be available on the Lockheed Martin-led Aegis Combat System.
  • A counter-UAS dazzler capability: The HELIOS dazzler will be designed to obscure adversarial UAS-based ISR capabilities.

"The HELIOS program is the first of its kind, and brings together laser weapon, long-range ISR and counter-UAS capabilities, dramatically increasing the situational awareness and layered defense options available to the U.S. Navy," said Michele Evans, vice president and general manager of Integrated Warfare Systems and Sensors. "This is a true system of capabilities, and we're honored the Navy trusted Lockheed Martin to be a part of fielding these robust systems to the fleet."

In this first increment of the U.S. Navy's Surface Navy Laser Weapon System program, Lockheed Martin will deliver two units for test by fiscal year 2020. One unit will be delivered for shipboard integration on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, and one unit will be used for land testing at White Sands Missile Range.

"Lockheed Martin's spectral beam combined fiber lasers bring flexibility and adaptability to defensive and offensive missions," said Dr. Rob Afzal, senior fellow of laser weapon systems. "Our design is scalable, and we can optimize it to meet requirements for future increments."

"HELIOS is one component of the Navy Laser Family of Systems and a major portion of the Navy's incremental strategy for delivery of increased laser weapon capability," Colleen O'Rourke, Spokeswoman for Naval Sea Systems Command, told Warrior Maven.

The Navy plans to put a HELIOS laser weapon on ships by early 2020. According to Lockheed Martin, HELIOS is a candidate to replace the MK-15 Phalanx Close-in Weapons System (CIWS) and the RIM-116 missile system on the US fleet. The Phalanx MK-15 weapons system is a radar-guided 20mm Gatling gun providing inner layer point defense capability against anti-ship missiles, aircraft and littoral warfare threats. The Phalanx is unique in that it is the only deployed close-in weapon system capable of autonomously performing its own search, detect, evaluation, track, engage and kill assessment functions.

HELIOS also has the potential to replace the RIM-116 lightweight, quick-reaction, fire-and-forget missile system, We Are The Mighty reported 31 May 2018, citing the materials from Lockheed. The RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) is produced jointly by the US and Germany for point defense on ships facing incoming cruise missiles in addition to asymmetric threats and surface threats.

Analyst Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessment said in March 2018 that HELIOS' ability to operate without physical storage of ammunition shows the US Navy is willing to transition to non-kinetic weapons. However generating adequate electrical power for the system remains a problem to be solved.

According to We Are The Mighty, HELIOS actually has comparable range to the RIM-116 (about 5 nautical miles) and potentially unlimited ammunition, assuming the power generation question is taken care of, thus making it a prime replacement for the gatling guns and missile systems that currently provide close-range defense. "We are talking about lasers that now have the power and beam quality needed to defend against [unmanned aerial vehicles], small boat threats and possible some weapons (eg incoming missiles) over short ranges," according to Gunzinger.

The US Navy aims to begin replacing its present anti-missile weapons systems with laser-based ones beginning in 2021 with the guided missile destroyer USS Preble. This, it hopes, will spawn a new wave of innovation that will enable the Navy to respond to advances in naval tactics by Beijing and Moscow that could overrun its existing shipboard defenses.

"The key for us is HELIOS: A shipboard laser that will take the place of what we have now," Rear Adm. Ron Boxall, who heads the surface warfare directorate for the Chief of Naval Operations, told Defense News in a May interview.

The Navy's present shipboard point defense systems include the Close-in Weapon System (CIWS, pronounced "see whiz") and the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), both of which are used as the last line of defense against incoming projectiles.

However, HELIOS will begin to change that. The High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance has a roughly five-mile range and will start out as a 60-kilowatt laser mounted on a guided missile destroyer that'll be used for little more than improved targeting, but Boxall hopes it will quickly scale up to at least 500 kilowatts and start actually destroying incoming missiles on its own.

The problem, however, is that the US Navy's never fired a 500-kilowatt laser. In 2014, the USS Ponce was donned with a 40-kilowatt laser known as the Laser Weapon System (LaWS). Boxhall told Defense News that's exactly why he's pushing for lasers to start replacing point defense systems now, comparing the move to a decision by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes in 1519 to burn his fleet of ships after landing in what is today Mexico, on the edges of the Aztec Empire.

"When Cortes burned his boats it was a message that they were going to win, and they were only going to win by going forward," Boxall said. "Similarly, we are making the decision to put the laser on our DDGs. It's going to start with Preble in 2021, and when we do that, that will now be her close-in weapon that we now continue to upgrade."

Of course, even a 150-kilowatt laser won't shoot down a missile very quickly, but Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Defense News that with the right motivation, it wouldn't be long before a 1-megawatt laser was on a surface vessel. "Once you get past 500 kilowatts, you start getting to a laser that can take down incoming cruise missiles even supersonic ones," he noted.

A Congressional Research Service report published 17 Ma 2019 highlighted the Navy's advances in laser weapons on multiple fronts. The report, titled "Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Gun-Launched Guided Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress," aimed to inform lawmakers about what the Navy calls the "Navy Laser Family of Systems" (NFLoS) in order to evaluate whether it has enough money to proceed at the desired pace.

The Navy handed Lockheed Martin a $150 million contract in January 2018 to develop HELIOS. That provides for the delivery of two systems one for the Preble and one for land-based testing. However, the CRS report notes that if they're successful, the contract could be expanded for 14 more HELIOS systems at a total cost of $942.8 million.

HELIOS is part of a larger program aiming to develop solid-state lasers (SSLs); other lasers in the program include the Ruggedized High Energy Laser (RHEL); the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN); the Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) effort; and the High Energy Laser Counter-ASCM Program (HELCA), for shooting down anti-ship cruise missiles.

Missile threats to ships have become a very real concern among US naval strategists in recent years, as China has surged forward with its medium-range missile and anti-ship missile programs. "We know that China has the most advanced ballistic missile force in the world," James Fanell, a retired US Navy captain and former senior intelligence officer with the US Pacific Fleet, told Reuters last month. "They have the capacity to overwhelm the defensive systems we are pursuing."

Some of the dangerous weapons developed by Beijing include the YJ-12, which has a 400-kilometer range, and the YJ-18, which has a 540-kilometer range. The People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) also sports anti-ship ballistic missiles like the supersonic CM-401, which can hit targets 290 kilometers away, and the DF-26 intermediate-range missile, dubbed the "Guam Killer" because of its nuclear capability and 3-5,000-kilometer range. PLARF is also well ahead of the US in developing hypersonic missiles.

These weapons, which far outpace those US ships could respond with, threaten the US Navy for hundreds of miles out from the Chinese coastline, forming a buffer zone that would hamper US efforts to operate in, for example, the South China or East China Seas in the event of a shooting war. Indeed, at the Zhuhai Air Show last November, an animation accompanying the debut of the CM-401 showed a swarm of missiles hitting enemy warships, including aircraft carriers resembling those used by the US Navy.

Defense News noted that existing doctrine calls for ships using the Aegis missile system to fire two anti-air missiles at each incoming threat, and then only fire more if the first salvo fails. Given that these missiles cost one ten-thousandth what a US aircraft carrier does, it would be very cost-effective to launch swarms of missiles at US fleets in the knowledge that their anti-air defenses only have so many rounds of ammunition. Sooner or later, missiles will start getting through.

The intention with HELIOS is to first enhance, then accompany the systems presently governed by Aegis. "You're going to be able to pass tracks back and forth between the Aegis system and the laser subsystem," Brandon Shelton, Lockheed Martin's HELIOS program director, told Defense News "It's also going to be structurally integrated into the ship it's not going to be bolted on. And its integrated into the ship's power system we're not going to be bringing extra energy magazines or batteries on to the ship. It fits within the ship's power."

However, the laser would only be able to engage so many targets at a time, Clark noted, so it'll never fully replace missiles or other systems. "If you have directed energy, it's shoot until you think you've killed the thing you are shooting at and then move on to the next target,'" he said. "If you have a salvo coming in, it will hit some number of them, but a lot depends of their geometry, how good a shot you get at them, how the threats are spaced, how far away they are. The laser can get maybe two, three, five or six of them, then they are on you. So, you have to have some kinetic weapons as well to fill the gap."




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