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Analysis: Top naval laser weapons systems - take 3

The concept of using high-energy and directed lasers for naval military applications is gathering pace among the world’s superpowers. If successfully developed and deployed, laser weapon systems might be regarded as a “game-changer” for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles and UAVs.
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Russian Vyborg Shipyard laid the Purga ice class coastguard ship of project 23550 925 001 Northrop Grumman will assist the Navy in testing a 150 kW-class Laser Weapon System Demonstrator aboard the service's Self Defense Test Ship, the former USS Paul F. Foster (DD-964). (Picture source: Northrop Grumman)

From the US Congressional Research Service report on Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Gun-Launched Guided Projectile:

In addition to a low marginal cost per shot and deep magazine, potential advantages of shipboard lasers include the following:

Fast engagement times. Light from a laser beam can reach a target almost instantly (eliminating the need to calculate an intercept course, as there is with interceptor missiles) and, by remaining focused on a particular spot on the target, cause disabling damage to the target within seconds. After disabling one target, a laser can be redirected in several seconds to another target.

Ability to counter radically maneuvering missiles. Lasers can follow and maintain their beam on radically maneuvering missiles that might stress the maneuvering capabilities of Navy SAMs.

Precision engagements. Lasers are precision-engagement weapons—the light spot from a laser, which might be several inches in diameter, affects what it hits, while generally not affecting (at least not directly) separate nearby objects.

Graduated responses. Lasers can perform functions other than destroying targets, including detecting and monitoring targets and producing nonlethal effects, including reversible jamming of electro-optic (EO) sensors. Lasers offer the potential for graduated responses that range from warning targets to reversibly jamming their systems, to causing limited but not disabling damage (as a further warning), and then finally causing disabling damage.

Russian Vyborg Shipyard laid the Purga ice class coastguard ship of project 23550 925 001 USS Portland conducts Laser Weapon System Demonstrator Test. (Picture source: US Navy)

Potential limitations of shipboard lasers include the following:

Line of sight. Since laser light tends to fly through the atmosphere on an essentially straight path, shipboard lasers would be limited to line-of-sight engagements, and consequently could not counter over-the-horizon targets or targets that are obscured by intervening objects. This limits in particular potential engagement ranges against small boats, which can be obscured by higher waves, or low-flying targets. Even so, lasers can rapidly reacquire boats obscured by periodic swells.

Atmospheric absorption, scattering, and turbulence. Substances in the atmosphere—particularly water vapor, but also things such as sand, dust, salt particles, smoke, and other air pollution—absorb and scatter light from a shipboard laser, and atmospheric turbulence can defocus a laser beam. These effects can reduce the effective range of a laser. Absorption by water vapor is a particular consideration for shipboard lasers because marine environments feature substantial amounts of water vapor in the air. There are certain wavelengths of light (i.e., “sweet spots” in the electromagnetic spectrum) where atmospheric absorption by water vapor is markedly reduced. Lasers can be designed to emit light at or near those sweet spots, so as to maximize their potential effectiveness. Absorption generally grows with distance to the target, making it, in general, less of a potential problem for short-range operations than for longer-range operations. Adaptive optics, which make rapid, fine adjustments to a laser beam on a continuous basis in response to observed turbulence, can counteract the effects of atmospheric turbulence. Even so, lasers might not work well, or at all, in rain or fog, preventing lasers from being an all-weather solution.

Thermal blooming. A laser that continues firing in the same exact direction for a certain amount of time can heat up the air it is passing through, which in turn can defocus the laser beam, reducing its ability to disable the intended target. This effect, called thermal blooming, can make lasers less effective for countering targets that are coming straight at the ship, on a constant bearing (i.e., “down-the-throat” shots). Other ship self-defense systems, such as interceptor missiles or a CIWS, might be more suitable for countering such targets. Most tests of laser systems have been against crossing targets rather than “down-the-throat” shots. In general, thermal blooming becomes more of a concern as the power of the laser beam increases.

Saturation attacks. Since a laser can attack only one target at a time, requires several seconds to disable it, and several more seconds to be redirected to the next target, a laser can disable only so many targets within a given period of time. This places an upper limit on the ability of an individual laser to deal with saturation attacks—attacks by multiple weapons that approach the ship simultaneously or within a few seconds of one another. This limitation can be mitigated by installing more than one laser on the ship, similar to how the Navy installs multiple CIWS systems on certain ships.

Hardened targets and countermeasures. Less-powerful lasers—that is, lasers with beam powers measured in kilowatts (kW) rather than megawatts (MW)—can have less effectiveness against targets that incorporate shielding, ablative material, or highly reflective surfaces, or that rotate rapidly (so that the laser spot does not remain continuously on a single location on the target’s surface) or tumble. Small boats (or other units) could employ smoke or other obscurants to reduce their susceptibility to laser attack.64 Measures such as these, however, can increase the cost and/or weight of a weapon, and obscurants could make it more difficult for small boat operators to see what is around them, reducing their ability to use their boats effectively.

Risk of collateral damage to aircraft, satellites, and human eyesight. Since the light from an upward-pointing laser that does not hit the target would continue flying upward in a straight line, it could pose a risk of causing unwanted collateral damage to aircraft and satellites. The light emitted by SSLs being developed by the Navy is of a frequency that can cause permanent damage to human eyesight, including blinding. Blinding can occur at ranges much greater than ranges for damaging targeted objects. Scattering of laser light off the target or off fog or particulates in the air can pose a risk to exposed eyes.