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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress

Ronald O'Rourke
Specialist in Naval Affairs

Department of Defense (DOD) development work on high-energy military lasers, which has been underway for decades, has reached the point where lasers capable of countering certain surface and air targets at ranges of about a mile could be made ready for installation on Navy surface ships over the next few years. More powerful shipboard lasers, which could become ready for installation in subsequent years, could provide Navy surface ships with an ability to counter a wider range of surface and air targets at ranges of up to about 10 miles. These more powerful lasers might, among other things, provide Navy surface ships with a terminal-defense capability against certain ballistic missiles, including the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) that China is believed to be developing.

The Navy and DOD are developing three principal types of lasers for potential use on Navy surface ships—fiber solid state lasers (SSLs), slab SSLs, and free electron lasers (FELs). The Navy’s fiber SSL prototype demonstrator is called the Laser Weapon System (LaWS). Among DOD’s multiple efforts to develop slab SSLs for military use is the Maritime Laser Demonstration (MLD), a prototype laser weapon developed as a rapid demonstration project. The Navy has developed a lower-power FEL prototype and is now developing a prototype with scaled-up power. These lasers differ in terms of their relative merits as potential shipboard weapons.

Although the Navy is developing laser technologies and prototypes of potential shipboard lasers, and has a generalized vision for shipboard lasers, the Navy currently does not have a program of record for procuring a production version of a shipboard laser, or a roadmap that calls for installing lasers on specific surface ships by specific dates. The possibility of equipping Navy surface ships with lasers in coming years raises a number of potential issues for Congress, including the following:
  • whether the Navy should act now to adopt a program of record for procuring a production version of a shipboard laser, and/or a roadmap that calls for installing lasers on specific surface ships by specific dates; 
  • how many types of lasers to continue developing, particularly given constraints on Navy funding, and the relative merits of types currently being developed; and 
  • the potential implications of shipboard lasers for the design and acquisition of Navy ships, including the Flight III DDG-51 destroyer that the Navy wants to begin procuring in FY2016. 
Congress in past years has provided some additional funding to help support Navy development of potential shipboard lasers. For FY2012 and subsequent years, Congress has several options regarding potential shipboard lasers. In addition to decisions on whether or not to fund continued development of potential shipboard lasers, these options include, among other things, the following: encouraging or directing the Navy or some other DOD organization to perform an analysis of alternatives (AOA) comparing the cost-effectiveness of lasers and traditional kinetic weapons (such as missiles and guns) for countering surface, air, and missile targets, and encouraging or directing the Navy to adopt a program of record for procuring a production version of a shipboard laser, and/or a roadmap that calls for installing lasers on specific surface ships by specific dates.

Date of Report: January 14, 2011
Number of Pages: 54
Order Number: R41526
Price: $29.95

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