The layered laser defense weapon shoots down a drone during a demonstration in February at the U.S. Army’s High-Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The ONR-sponsored demonstration marked the first time the US Navy has used a high-energy, all-electric laser weapon to defeat a subsonic cruise missile target in flight.
Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin
The ground-based laser system aimed at the passing red drone, firing a high-energy beam invisible to the naked eye. Suddenly, a fiery orange glow lit up over the drone, smoke poured from its engine, and a parachute opened as the craft plummeted, disabled by the laser beam.
The February demonstration marked the first time the US Navy has used a high-energy, all-electric laser weapon to defeat a subsonic cruise missile target in flight.
Known as Layered Laser Defense (LLD), the weapon was designed and built by Lockheed Martin to serve as a cross-domain, cross-platform demonstration system. It can counter unmanned aerial systems and fast attack craft with a high-powered laser, and also use its high-resolution telescope to track incoming aerial threats, support combat identification, and conduct combat damage assessment of engaged targets.
The downing of the drone by the LLD was part of a recent test sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) at the U.S. Army’s High Energy Laser Systems Test Facility at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The demonstration was a partnership between ONR, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Research and Engineering), and Lockheed Martin.
“Innovative laser systems like LLD have the potential to redefine the future of naval combat operations,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Lorin C. Selby. “They present transformative capabilities to the fleet, respond to various threats, and provide precision engagements with a deep loader to supplement existing defensive systems and enhance sustainable lethality in high-intensity conflict.”
LLD testing supports a broader effort by the naval research and development community, working closely with the fleet, to mature technologies and field a family of laser weapons capable of meeting multiple threats in using a growing range of options. These capabilities range from non-lethal measures, such as optical “glare” and disabling sensors, to destroying a target.
Laser weapons offer new precision and speed of engagement for naval combatants. They also provide simplified logistics that are safer for ships and their crews, as the lasers are not dependent on traditional propellants or gunpowder-based ammunition found on ships.
Instead, modern high-powered lasers run on electricity, making them inherently safer and able to provide weapon capability as long as a ship is powered. This also means that the cost per engagement for a laser weapon can be very low, since the only consumable item spent is fuel to run the system.
For years, the Department of Defense (DoD) and all services have recognized the promise of directed energy weapons such as lasers and continue to prioritize research. Recently, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the Hon. Heidi Shyu, reaffirmed that directed energy is one of the DoD’s critical technology areas.
The ONR plays an important role in the development of technologies for laser weapons and has fielded demonstration systems for operational experimentation. Notably, in 2014, the ONR saw the laser weapon system successfully tested aboard the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. Most recently, the ONR deployed the Laser Weapon System Demonstrator aboard the USS Portland in 2021.
Although there are no plans to deploy the LLD, it offers a glimpse into the future of laser weapons. It is compact and powerful, yet more efficient than previous systems. It features specialized optics to observe a target and focus laser beams to maximum effect, while also incorporating artificial intelligence to improve tracking and targeting.
“LLD is an example of what a very advanced laser system can do to defeat significant threats to naval forces,” said David Kiel, a former Navy captain who is a program officer in the Department of Aviation, of Force Projection and Integrated Defense of the ONR, which managed the trial. “And we have ongoing efforts, both at ONR and in other Navy programs, to continue to build on these results in the near future.”
In the recent test at White Sands, the LLD tracked or shot down an array of targets, including fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles, quadcopters and high-speed drones representative of subsonic cruise missiles.
“We are proud to say that the Layered Laser Defense System has defeated a surrogate cruise missile threat in partnership with teams from the Navy, White Sands Missile Range and United Nations Test Facility. military high-energy laser systems. Lockheed Martin has selected best-in-class laser weapon subsystems from across the company, including key industry partner Rolls-Royce, to support the entire engagement schedule of threats, from target detection to defeat,” said Rick Cordaro, vice president, Lockheed Martin Advanced Product Solutions. . “We’ve leveraged over 40 years of directed energy experience to create new capabilities that support the 21st century warfighter.”
Dr Frank Peterkin, ONR’s Directed Energy Portfolio Manager, said: “The Navy performed similar tests in the 1980s, but with chemical-based laser technologies that presented significant logistical hurdles to commissioning in an operational environment. And, ultimately, these types of lasers didn’t make it to the fleet or any other service.
“Today, ONR coordinates closely with the Navy’s resource and acquisition communities to ensure that we develop laser weapon technologies that meet the Navy’s needs for fleet defense and for operations. in the harsh maritime environment at sea,” continued Peterkin. “It’s a tough problem, but Navy leaders at all levels see the potential of laser weapons to really make a difference. The next few years are going to be very exciting as we work with the Navy and joint partners to make of the capability that we have just seen demonstrated by the LLD a reality for the naval combatant.