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Report on Navy Laser, Railgun and Gun-Launched Guided Projectiles


The following is the Nov. 21, 2019 Congressional Research Service report, Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Gun-Launched Guided Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress.


Laser Weapon System on the USS Ponce 925 001 Laser Weapon System on the USS Ponce (Picture source: U.S. Navy)


Three new ship-based weapons being developed by the Navy—solid-state lasers (SSLs), the electromagnetic railgun (EMRG), and the gun-launched guided projectile (GLGP), also known as the hypervelocity projectile (HVP)—could substantially improve the ability of Navy surface ships to defend themselves against surface craft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and eventually anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs).

The Navy has been developing SSLs for several years, and in 2014 installed on a Navy ship a prototype SSL called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) that was capable of countering surface craft and UAVs. The Navy is now developing SSLs with improved capability for countering surface craft and UAVs, and eventually a capability for countering ASCMs. Navy efforts to develop these more capable lasers include:

- the Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) effort;
- the Ruggedized High Energy Laser (RHEL);
- the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN);
- the Surface Navy Laser Weapon System (SNLWS) Increment 1, also known as the high-energy laser with integrated optical dazzler and surveillance (HELIOS); and
- the High Energy Laser Counter-ASCM Program (HELCAP).

The Navy refers to the first four efforts above collectively as the Navy Laser Family of Systems (NFLoS). Under the Navy’s laser development approach, NFLOS and HELCAP, along with technologies developed by other parts of DOD, are to support the development of future, more capable shipboard lasers.

The Navy has been developing EMRG for several years. It was originally conceived as a naval surface fire support (NSFS) weapon for supporting Marines and other friendly forces ashore. Subsequently, it was determined that ERGM could also be used for air and missile defence, which strengthened interest in ERGM development. More recently, it was determined that the projectile to be fired by ERGM could also be fired by existing powder-propellant guns, including 5-inch and 155 mm guns on Navy cruisers and destroyers, and 155 mm artillery guns operated by the Army and Marine Corps. When fired from power guns, the projectile does not fly as quickly as it does when fired from an ERGM, but it still flies quickly enough to be of use as an air-defence weapon. The concept of firing the projectile from powder guns is referred to as GLGP and HVP. One potential advantage of HVP/GLGP is that once developed, it can be rapidly deployed on Navy cruisers and destroyers and in Army and Marine Corps artillery units because the powder guns in question already exist.

In addition to the question of whether to approve, reject, or modify the Navy’s FY2020 funding requests for SSLs, ERGM, and HVP/GLGP, issues for Congress include the following:

- whether the Navy is moving too quickly, too slowly, or at about the right speed in its efforts to develop these weapons;
- the Navy’s plans for transitioning these weapons from development to procurement and fielding aboard Navy ships; and
- whether Navy the Navy’s shipbuilding plans include ships with appropriate amounts of space, weight, electrical power, and cooling capacity to accommodate these weapons.