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Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM)

To help Sailors defeat small boat threats and aerial targets without using bullets, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) wants to develop a solid-state laser weapon prototype that will demonstrate multi-mission capabilities aboard a Navy ship, officials announced 08 May 2012. We believe its time to move forward with solid-state lasers and shift the focus from limited demonstrations to weapon prototype development and related technology advancement, said Peter Morrison, program officer of the Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program. ONR hosted an industry day May 16 to provide the research and development community with information about the program. A broad agency announcement is expected to be released thereafter to solicit proposals and bids.

The Navys long history of advancing directed-energy technology has yielded kilowatt-scale lasers capable of being employed as weapons. Among the programs, the Maritime Laser Demonstration developed a proof-of-concept technology that was tested at sea aboard a decommissioned Navy ship. The demonstrator was able to disable a small boat target. Another program, the Laser Weapon System, demonstrated a similar ability to shoot down four small unmanned test aircraft. The SSL-TM program builds upon ONRs directed-energy developments and knowledge gained from other laser research initiatives, including the MK 38 Tactical Laser Demonstration tested at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. All of these efforts could help the Department of the Navy become the first of the armed forces to deploy high-energy laser weapons.

High-energy laser weapons cost about $1 per shot to firea highly cost-effective approach for countering the threat from unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be manufactured for as little as $50,000 apiece. Defending todays warships with only guns and missiles is a very expensive means of fighting inexpensive threats. A laser would modify this equation in the defenders favor by giving ships what the Navy calls a deep magazine, reducing the need for replenishing. A ships existing electrical system can power the laser, and missiles and ammunition can be saved for use against larger and more difficult targets, such as manned aircraft and ships. Laser weapons complement kinetic weapons currently aboard surface combatants and offer a few specific advantages, such as the ability to:

  • Engage with precision without the associated collateral damage of an exploding warheadand firing depth is limited only by power and cooling
  • Offer a measured response, allowing friendly forces first to warn a threat and later to change to a lethal engagement if the threat does not heed the warning
  • Complement conventional kinetic-energy weapons such as guns or missiles through accurate laser targeting, ranging, and illumination
  • Achieve significant cost savingsagainst specific threats, the cost per engagement is orders of magnitude less than comparable missile engagements.

The focus of the ONR Solid-State Laser program is to address threats such as small suicide boats carrying explosives, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance and unmanned aerial systems, or inexpensive armed drones. As power levels increase, the potential exists to defeat more difficult targetsthreats aimed at the Navys surface combatants, amphibious ships, and aircraft carriers. The precision of solid-state lasers and the low cost per shot make these systems an effective and affordable way to counter many potential threats facing deployed naval forces.

ONRs Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) program is focused on developing the next generation of high-energy laser weapon systems and transitioning that technology to an acquisition program of record. SSL-TMs goal is to design and build an advanced development model prototype solid-state laser weapon (or weapons), install it on a naval vessel, and test it at sea by 2016.

Data regarding accuracy, lethality, and other factors from Ponces deployment will guide the development of the SSL-TM weapon(s). The program is made possible because of collaboration between ONR, Naval Sea Systems Commands Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems Program Office, and Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and the leveraging of contributions from the Department of Defenses High-Energy Laser Joint Technology Office.

Three Navy contractorsRaytheon, Northrop Grumman, and BAE Systemswere awarded contracts to develop different concepts of solid-state laser weapon prototypes between 100150 kilowatts. As a result of LaWS performance and knowledge gained, new solid-state-based high-energy laser weapon systems with improved effectiveness could be demonstrated in an operational setting on destroyers or littoral combat ships in approximately five years. If all goes well, full-scale deployment of a solid-state laser weapon aboard a ship could become a reality in the 2020s.

In the near term, many challenges remain to develop and operate high-energy laser systems in the maritime environment that are unique to the Navy and Marine Corps. Among these challenges is dealing with the heat generated as power levels increase. A second issue is packing sufficient power on the platform, which will require advanced battery, generator, power conditioning, and hybrid energy technologies. Current laser technologies are approximately 30 percent electrically efficient. Corrosion and contamination of optical windows by shipboard salt spray, dirt, and grime also are technical challenges. In addition, atmospheric turbulence resulting from shifting weather conditions, moisture, and dust is problematic. Turbulence can cause the air over long distances to act like a lens, resulting in the laser beams diffusing and distorting, which degrades its performance.

SSL-TM is expected to be shipped for its first sea trials in the fourth quarter of 2019. If it turns out to be true, the object will soon be moved to San Diego Pier the homeport of the amphibious USS Portland, designated to be the test vessel for the new high-tech weapon sought by the US Navy.

SSL-TM is expected to produce a laser beam of up to 150kW in power. The weapon, which Navy wants to install on some ships, will be tasked with destroying minor targets such as small enemy boats, unmanned aerial aircraft (UAV) at close to medium range, as well as some missiles.





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