Related Video Above: Helios
The Navy is moving quickly to arm its growing fleet of destroyers with a variety of scalable, high-powered lasers intended to incinerate enemy drones, helicopters and fixed wing targets, intercept incoming anti-ship missiles and even perform surveillance optics and targeting for ship-mounted weapons systems.
Ship fired lasers can introduce an entirely new, and highly impactful, tactical advantage to U.S. Navy warship offensive and defensive operations.
Of course they are much lower cost than expensive interceptor missiles but they are also inherently scalable, meaning they can be tailored to either disable or destroy targets.
Should an incoming enemy anti-ship missile be traveling over heavily trafficked ocean areas, a kinetic “explosion” dispersing fragments would be likely to cause civilian casualties. A laser weapon, however, can simply incinerate the target with much less fragmentation and explosive “energetics.”
Helios: High-Energy Laser with Optical-dazzler and Surveillance
One laser system now being integrated on ships is called HELIOS, for High-Energy Laser with Optical-dazzler and Surveillance, a system now arming some DDG 51 destroyers with offensive and defensive weapons capability. Lasers such as HELIOS also bring a substantial optical component, meaning they can act as a sensor to track targets and help with necessary surveillance missions.
Lasers could also in some instances enable surface warships to close in more fully upon enemy positions, given that deck-mounted guns could be supplemented by laser weapons attacking at the speed of light and engineered to pinpoint narrow target areas with precision-guidance technology.
Not only are lasers quiet, low-cost, scalable and precise, but perhaps of even greater significance, they fire at the speed of light. Pure speed, when it comes to ocean warfare, is increasingly vital as new technologies enter the sphere of Naval warfare, greatly changing the tactical equation.
Distributed Maritime Operations
This is particularly relevant in light of the Navy’s much discussed Distributed Maritime Operations which calls for a more dispersed, yet networked fleet able to leverage a new generation of long-range sensors and weapons.
Modern Maritime warfare, as described in the U.S. Navy’s just released CNO NAVPLAN strategy document, is becoming increasingly dispersed, networked and driven by new levels of AI-enabled autonomy.
“Ubiquitous and persistent sensors, advanced battle networks, and weapons of increasing range and speed have driven us to a more dispersed type of fight …. keeping ahead of our competitors requires us to rapidly field state-of-the art systems. Speed matters,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday writes in the CNO NAVPLAN released earlier this year.
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More Destroyers Coming
Despite a chorus of ongoing concerns about the size of the Navy’s budget and the established reality that China’s Navy is now officially larger than the U.S., the U.S. Navy is, if somewhat quietly, powering along with adding large amounts of new destroyers to the fleet.
The effort is multifaceted in that it includes upgrading the existing fleet of DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class Flight IIA destroyers as well as building a large number of new warships, to include the addition of large numbers of advanced, next-generation DDG 51 Flight III destroyers.
For example, the Navy’s future USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG 121) recently completed Acceptance trials after spending two days at sea, a Navy report said.
As a key step in preparation for war, the DDG 121’s systems and technologies were fully assessed, tested and put through trials during the assessments. The ship’s navigational system, damage control technology, weapon and propulsion systems all met or exceeded expectations, the Navy report said.
The Navy currently operates more than 80 destroyers and is currently adding more than 10 new, upgraded Flight III DDG 51s with new radar and weapons. However, the service is also deeply invested in sustaining its existing fleet as well, some of which are now decades old.
Within the next 15 years, the navy plans to add at least 30 new DDG 51 destroyers including 22 new, high-tech DDG 51 Flight III warships and eight state-of-the-art DDG 51 Flight IIA destroyers.
The U.S. Navy has as many as 20 new destroyers now in various stages of construction, an extremely significant, yet lesser known fact of great relevance to the future of maritime war.
As part of these kinds of initiatives, the Navy is now replacing steel structures, revamping on-board electronics and performing maintenance on the underwater hull of several existing destroyers that have been maintaining a high mission uptempo. This is part of the reason why current Navy Flight IIA DDG 51 are being back-fitted with newer, far more sensitive AN/SPY-6 radar systems which bring the ability to detect serious threats at much longer ranges. The new Raytheon-built radar can detect threat objects at twice the distance and half the size when compared to existing radar.
The Navy destroyers are also being armed with lasers and advanced EW applications along with upgraded ship defenses such as SM-3, SM-6 and Tomahawk missiles.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox