Laser Weapons and Naval Warfare: An Introduction

By Paul Bragulla

To date, the story of laser weapons has been one of great promise but slow delivery. However, modern developments in the fields of materials science, optics, and computer technology are making it increasingly likely that they will reach operational status in the next decade. This realization has prompted laser weapon-development programs around the world, including Germany and China.

Progress in the development of solid state lasers (SSLs) has been especially rapid. In January 2013, Rheinmetall – a German corporation – demonstrated a 50 kW prototype capable of anti-drone and counter-rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) functions. Rheinmetall also has plans for a technology demonstrator in the 60 kW range next year and has indicated they believe there are no major technical barriers to the construction of a 100 kW device1. According to a Congressional Research Service report, 100 kW is the beginning power range at which a laser becomes an effective C-RAM battery, or can defeat subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and manned aircraft2.

Due to the great power, cooling, and volume capacity of surface warships it has been suggested that, of all the services, the U.S. Navy is the ideal “first adopter” of high-energy laser weapons in the 100+ kW range3. This implies that early laser weapons of other nations may also see their first operational use on warships. Additionally, fitting lasers to warships may counteract the offensive-defensive imbalance that has developed in the last 50 years whereby the cost of anti-ship weapons has declined while the cost of their respective countermeasures has remained high. A laser pulse capable of disabling an ASCM may cost a few dollars in comparison to the $800,000 price of a Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM). Laser weapons are also touted as simplifying logistical requirements and allowing longer time on station, as they do not require ammunition reloads.4

There has been abundant analysis of the technical characteristics of various potential laser weapon systems and their possible effects on various targets, although much more must be done before these systems can take their place alongside proven technologies. Here, however, I would like to focus on the larger-scale impact laser weapons may exert on the development of naval warfare in the 21st century. How will they affect the balance of measure and countermeasure? How might state and non-state actors respond to the development of weapons which render unfavorable the currently favorable (to them) cost-benefit ratio of their anti-ship weapons to our defenses?

I must make many assumptions, but I will do my best to ensure that these are both explicit and reasonable. My first general assumption is that within the next decade, SSLs with beam powers of up to 500 kW will be developed5. Such lasers would be able to engage UAVs, subsonic ASCMs, artillery rockets and shells, and manned aircraft. It has been estimated that the Flight III Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers (DDGs) will have the excess power and cooling capacity to support up to a 200 kW SSL , which would be capable of all of the above with the exception of engaging manned aircraft.

Lasers as counter-measure
                   Lasers as counter-measure

The possibility exists of outfitting other ship classes, such as the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carriers and Zumwalt-class DDGs, with greater power-requirement weapons and the Navy has expressed an interest in equipping them with free-electron lasers (FELs). I assume that FELs with up to 1 MW of beam power will prove practicable within 20 years. Compared to SSLs, installing these brings far larger weight as well as radiation shielding considerations and so are likely to be fitted to specialized laser-ships, possibly select Zumwalts built with the air/missile defense role in mind. Alternatively, SSL technology may advance in ways that make multiple SSLs firing together more economical than fewer, larger FELs.

What follows from these assumptions? First, it is very unlikely that laser weapons will largely replace missiles or guns in the world’s naval arsenal. Instead they will add more arrows, with unique advantages and limitations, to the naval commander’s quiver. There are some things, like C-RAM and anti-UAV, which are within the capabilities of even the relatively lower power lasers that can be mounted on the Flight III Arleigh Burkes. The advantages of such a laser-based Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) are magnified by the fact that an opportunistic attack by means of rockets, artillery, or mortars against an American ship in a foreign port or naval choke point – whether by state or non-state actor – is a far likelier near-term danger than an attack on the high-seas by supersonic ASCMs. Compared to an expensive interceptor missile or collateral-damage-causing gun-based CIWS, the superiority of using a few dollars’ worth of electrical power to destroy an incoming threat is apparent. Such a system adds another layer to warship armaments, freeing missiles and guns to concentrate on targets more suited to their particular capabilities.

However, to fully appreciate the implications of this technology we must build a conceptual framework that integrates lasers with extant weapons systems. The two primary types of weapons systems currently available to the world’s navies are guns and missiles. The distinguishing features of gun-type weapons systems are that they employ an unguided projectile which lacks an on-board propulsion system, while those of missile-based systems are that they use a guided projectile which is propelled to the target by an on-board propulsion system. Like all weapons, both seek to disrupt the functions of a target by depositing energy within it.

The traditional weapon spectrum
The traditional weapon spectrum

If we consider these two types further we see that they can be viewed as points along a spectrum, upon which there are many possibilities. For instance, rocket-assisted artillery shells and guided artillery shells have characteristics of both guns and missiles; they mix the advantages and limitations of the two extremes.

The advent of lasers and other Directed-Energy Weapons (DEW) adds a third vertex to our diagram, and expands the spectrum of possibilities into a two-dimensional field.

The new playing field
The new playing field

Lasers excel at destroying lightly-armored targets which move or maneuver rapidly within line of sight (LOS) of the weapon. Thus, they complement rather than replace the other two approaches. Missiles and guns are better used to engage non-LOS targets, which may be slower moving and more heavily protected, or under meteorological conditions unfavorable to lasers.

Another use of this diagram is to explore the possibilities for new weapons systems that may or may not currently exist. Weapons along the gun-missile edge have been identified, but what of the other two? Are there possible weapons which combine aspects of all three vertices, and so fall in the space between the edges? Boeing’s new Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile (CHAMP)6 is a cruise missile that carries a microwave DEW capable of disabling electronics near its flight path, and so would seem to occupy a spot along the Missile-DEW edge. This space is also shared by various “bomb-pumped” DEW concepts that use the energy of a nuclear initiation to excite an X-ray lasing medium, as in Project Excalibur, or generate a plasma jet like the “casaba howitzer” developed through Project Orion.

The introduction of powerful laser weapons will likely cause a tumult in weapons development as both the particular abilities of various laser configurations are tested and countermeasures developed. In addition to armoring conventional missile designs, is there the possibility of developing a new type of gun-missile hybrid to exploit the particular weaknesses of laser weapons? An ASCM variant which, from beyond LOS, launches one or more solid depleted uranium or tungsten penetrator darts at high-supersonic velocity towards a target ship might fit this role. Such a penetrator would be more difficult for a laser to deflect or destroy than any missile, though a conventional interceptor might find it less challenging.

In following segments, I will explore more aspects of the possible development of laser weapons and their countermeasures. What scenarios emerge from a future in which high-energy FELs advance faster, or slower, than expected? What strategies, technological and otherwise, might various potential opponents of the U.S. Navy take to counter such weapons? What does a scenario in which MW-range laser weapons and railguns advance rapidly mean for the future of missiles and aero-naval warfare as a whole? We cannot know what is to come until we experience it, but with careful forethought we may prepare the conceptual foundation for rapid and effective responses to future challenges.

Paul W. Bragulla is the recent cofounder of Prokalkeo, an emerging technology consulting company headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area. He holds a BS in Physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and is an enthusiastic scholar of military affairs. His scientific experience is primarily in the fields of high-energy lasers and aerospace technology.

1. Peter Murray, German Military Laser Destroys Targets Over 1Km Away.
2. Ronald O’Rourke collects the results of several studies on laser effectiveness into a single table in Navy Shipboard Lasers for Surface, Air, and Missile Defense: Background and Issues for Congress (Congressional Research Service, 2013), table A-1, 36.
3. Mark Gunziger and Chris Dougherty specifically suggest high energy SSLs as the technology of interest in their Changing the Game: The Promise of Directed Energy Weapons (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2012), but point out that the Navy is also strongly focused on Free-Electron Lasers (FELs) which promise multi-megawatt outputs suitable for the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) role as well as the ability to tailor the frequency of their output to local meteorological conditions.
4. The notable exceptions to this rule are chemical lasers, which utilize the energy of a chemical reaction to generate their beams. They are also the only lasers currently capable of producing megawatt-range outputs.
5. Changing the Game: The Promise of Directed Energy Weapons, 25.
6. Randy Jackson, CHAMP – Lights Out.

Featured Image: Laser weapon prototype (U.S. Navy)

Call for Input: Establishing the 3-D Printing Beachhead

Scott Cheney-Peters and I had the chance to join Ben Kohlmann, of Distruptive Thinkers, and the U.S. Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC), for a conference call on 3-D printing‘s potential in the fleet. The conver sation, in terms both of research beforehand and its execution, was quite informative for we two amateurs.

A Beachhead… On The Beach:

The challenges of 3-D printing will define the nature of its deployment.  One problem I arrived upon after some research for the talk was the potential issue with stability.  One of the potentially most useful technologies for ships, Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) uses layers of metal dust layered meticulously one-over-the-other as an object is produced.  Despite my earlier enthusiasm for putting 3-D printers on everything – from destroyers to cruiser to potentially even larger ships – some may be inappropriate as platforms for a process that will depend on precision due to their instability. No one wants to destroy 30 hours of work on a pump body with one good roll from sudden heavy seas.  This makes shoreside facilities the most appealing venue for 3-D printing’s initial beachhead.

Critical Questions:

To build a better catalog of stakeholders for NWDC and to get critical technical advice, I’ve been contacting the fleet’s Regional Maintenance Centers and some assorted other support facilities for input.  However, our community here at CIMSEC is just as rich in professional expertise, experience, and insight.  Therefore, we’re hoping to leverage the input of you, our readers, just as we’ve been able to build off the expertise of the others working on this issue.  Here are our questions:

Help us fill in the 3D printing blanks!
                                                            Help us fill in the 3-D printing blanks!

1.) What kind of maintenance problems are most frustrating, that involve mass part replacements or high-fail items?

2.) Which kinds of parts are hardest to find or build?  Are there any small-to-medium-sized parts that you’ve found expensive or difficult to replace? 

3.) If so, what materials are they made out of?  We are particularly interested in mono-material items.

4.) Is there anything the Intermediate Maintenance Activities (IMA) can’t do that 3-D printing might facilitate beyond merely producing new parts?

Scott has brought up other challenges with 3-D printing: the quality and limitations of usable materials, training and operations, and certification of the printed products for use (due to variability of quality).  These administrative and manning details are worth considering as well if you have additional input, concerns, or suggestions.  One particularly helpful IMA head suggested that the Navy’s many CNC-mill operators already have the technical knowledge to operate 3-D printers.  Some of the solutions for figuring out how to best use these technologies as they mature may well involve just realigning existing capabilities.  

Welcome to Sequestration: Making the Business Case

The story of one particularly frustrated program office head reminded me that sequestration will have a real effect on a potential roll out.  While we once may have said, “millions for defense but not one cent for tribute,” we must now pay tribute to our financial constraints.  The objective is to find the greatest savings or capability margin that 3-D printings can give us.

The business case is absolutely critical to this technology being taken seriously.  There will be no grand LCS-style science project.  If the best answer is a Portabee or Replicator 2 reproducing broken belt clips, buckles, and assorted other tertiary gear, so be it.  While we’d love to roll in a 900K duel-laser DMLS machine to print whole pump bodies, the likelihood that such funding is available is marginal… unless the case can be made for it.  Being able to replace GTE turbine-blades on demand would be a nice trick.  If we can certify it for commercial aircraft and human skulls, maybe it won’t be so hard to certify for load-bearing use.  However, clearly laying out the advantages in flexibility, cost, and time that 3-D printing could create over the short- and long-term, and the viable procedures for leveraging those advantages, are the keys to making a prototype deployment of 3-D printers a reality.

Engineers talk to CIMSEC about what they want from 3-D Printing.
          We need to tame our untrammeled enthusiasm with marketable practicality.

 

We look to you, CIMSEC members and friends, to help us push this project forward.  If you know likely interested parties, let me know.  If you have a solid business case, or problem that 3-D printing could solve, write and submit your findings to the editorial board.  Of course, you can always comment below to add to the conversation.  We think 3-D printing is likely to be a valuable step forward in the Navy’s future, and a few non-engineer amateurs can only go so far.  

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.  The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity.  They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Economics and Somali Piracy

Somali Pirates
                                                                             Pirates a lá Somali

 

While the consensus seems to be that Somali piracy is in a terminal decline, over the weekend the Washington Post’s Wonkblog highlighted an interesting academic study from last year that attempted to determine the costs of Somali piracy since 2008.  The bottom line, from economists Timothy Besley, Thiemo Fetzer and Hannes Mueller, was that piracy increased the cost for shipping bulk cargo through the region 8%, with a 14% seasonal discount between December-February and June-September when the monsoon causes sea states to be less hospitable to pirates.

Of particular interest is the economist’s attempt to measure how efficient piracy has been as a method of transferring wealth from the rest of the world to Somalia.  According to their analysis, pirates generating a total in $120M in annual ransoms would possibly drive industry to spend up to ten times that amount on insurance and onboard security.  Theoretically, Somalia could get the same amount of money from an .8% tax on charters than the 8% increased costs faced by shippers.

Piracy has driven some economic growth in Somalia, with one study arguing that ransoms received in 2009 were five times greater than the budget of Puntland.  Such development has been uneven however and did not benefit all Somalis. Intriguingly, economic growth and development measured in terms such as construction, urbanization, and light emissions measured through overhead imagery showed significant growth in major Puntland cities like Bossasso, rather than main Puntland pirate bases like Eyl and Hobyo.

Although ransoms as a wealth transfer are a “thought experiment” which the authors don’t necessarily advocate as policy, there is a clear subtext that aid for effective security forces would be a cheaper method to achieve the security needed to eliminate piracy than paying ransoms or funding afloat counter-piracy task forces.  They cite Stig Hansen’s compelling argument that the triggering event for the explosion of piracy in recent years was the Puntland economic crisis in 2008, during which the government of the semi-autonomous region suspended pay to the police and militia responsible for border security.

Of course while a tax on trade to fund a wealth transfer to Somalia may have been a much more efficient way of combating piracy than the current combined approach of naval forces afloat, industry best practices, a Kenyan invasion of Somalia, and the funding of AMISOM troops (in a previous article in Proceedings I vainly attempted to compare the relative costs and benefits of counter-piracy task forces afloat and security forces in Somalia), it does not square with any accepted notion of freedom of navigation in international waters.  While an effective Somali government would certainly have the right to regulate economic activity in its Exclusive Economic Zone (commonly listed narratives for the start of piracy in the region include grassroots local efforts to regulate illegal fishing and toxic waste disposal by foreigners in Somali waters), impeding or taxing commercial shipping traversing international waters adjacent to Somalia would be unacceptable to the international community.

Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the OPNAV staff.  He has previously served at Naval Special Warfare Group FOUR, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and onboard USS Essex (LHD 2).  The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

From Epipole to Cyber War

Walls and Counter-Walls
Walls and Counter-Walls

From The Jaws of Victory

In the Peloponnesian War, the 414 BC final battle of Epipole showed the pitfalls of an over-reliance on communications and single circuits. During this last battle of the Athenian siege of Syracuse, the Syracusans countered the attempt of Athens to wall in the city by building a counter-wall in the projected path of Athen’s efforts. The Syracusans had gained a critical blocking position, and Athenian General Demosthenes concocted a plan to dislodge the defenders. The Athenian forces stalled during the daytime battles outside the counter-wall, when their enemies could easily observe and rally against them, so General Demosthenes planned t strike the counter-wall at night. The well-organized nighttime Athenian attack completely overwhelmed and nearly destroyed the first Syracusan garrison. As the alarm sounded, the Athenians rushed forward without allowing themselves time to re-organize and re-identify. When the first real resistance was met, the ensuing disaster captured by Thucydides is worth citing in full:

IFF degrades to, "is this person stabbing me in the face?"
Primative IFF:  “is this person stabbing me in the face?”

“Although there was a bright moon they saw each other only as men do by moonlight, that is to say, they could distinguish the form of the body, but could not tell for certain whether it was a friend or an enemy. Both had great numbers of heavy infantry moving about in a small space. Some of the Athenians were already defeated, while others were coming up yet unconquered for their first attack. A large part also of the rest of their forces either had only just got up, or were still ascending, so that they did not know which way to march. Owing to the rout that had taken place all in front was now in confusion, and the noise made it difficult to distinguish anything. The victorious Syracusans and allies were cheering each other on with loud cries, by night the only possible means of communication, and meanwhile receiving all who came against them; while the Athenians were seeking for one another, taking all in front of them for enemies, even although they might be some of their now flying friends; and by constantly asking for the watchword, which was their only means of recognition, not only caused great confusion among themselves by asking all at once, but also made it known to the enemy, whose own they did not so readily discover, as the Syracusans were victorious and not scattered, and thus less easily mistaken. The result was that if the Athenians fell in with a party of the enemy that was weaker than they, it escaped them through knowing their watchword; while if they themselves failed to answer they were put to the sword. But what hurt them as much, or indeed more than anything else, was the singing of the paean, from the perplexity which it caused by being nearly the same on either side; the Argives and Corcyraeans and any other Dorian peoples in the army, struck terror into the Athenians whenever they raised their paean, no less than did the enemy.”

In Sicily, the simple task of a man not stabbing his own ally in the face with a sword was hard enough with only primordial Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) and comms. In today’s high-speed remote-control warfare and vulnerable high-tech comms, in which seconds can mean life-or-death, the potential to accidentally destroy a friend, miss an enemy, or become isolated is even greater. When the enemy knows the “watch-words,” this potential becomes a certainty as paranoia and confusion set in.
 
The Offense Challenge

 

The defender often has the simpler fight. As illustrated in the excerpt and so aptly explained by the indomitable Chesty Puller, “So they’ve got us surrounded, good! Now we can fire in any direction, those bastards won’t get away this time!” The U.S. Navy, in its typical role as the expeditionary power, will almost always have that offense-disadvantage. It has yet to fight an enemy that can attack the precious network of communications that creates such an unspeakable force multiplier in the field. When the network is attacked, the swarm of American ships, missiles, and aircraft itself becomes a liability, as were the Athenians who cut apart their own brothers ahead of them.
 
Protecting Less with More
 
The solution to the communication weakness is to stay ahead of the offense-defense struggle through aggressive capital investment and streamlined lines of communication. As with the use of setting AEGIS doctrine to auto-respond to anti-ship missile (ASM) threats, cyber-warfare is far too fast for human operators. Our virtual-defense infrastructure may be significant, but it is slow, human, and defending far too many unnecessary and redundant communications. A response is a smarter investment in cyber-defense capital and a more disciplined use of our vital communications networks.

"We got the info via e-mail? Good! Bill, request a message. Susanne, request it be added to three status and SITREP messages. I'll request voice reports on two different circuits. I'll also need 6 of you to chat them every 3 minutes from your individual accounts. After that, we'll send a powerpoint for them to update. Also, one of you be sure to forget this is high-side information and constantly ping them until they cave and email it from Gmail. Get to it, people!"
“We got the info via e-mail? Good! Bill, request a message. Susanne, request it be added to three status and SITREP messages. I’ll request voice reports on two different circuits. I’ll also need 6 of you to chat them every 3 minutes from your individual accounts. After that, we’ll send a powerpoint for them to update. Also, one of you be sure to forget this is high-side information and constantly ping them until they cave and email it from Gmail. Get to it, people!”

Streamlining comes from bringing all communications under control, or more accurately bringing under control those using them. We are the Athenians screaming our watch-word at one another because no one bothered to re-organize before charging in. It boils down to paying attention and staying calm; what we have is seventeen sources pinging a ship for the same information that is held in 8 PowerPoint trackers, 2 messages, at least one call over the voice circuits, and 30 emails with at least half the lazy people asking for the information in the CC line. The sheer bandwidth of material that needs protection and monitoring could be decreased with a “ctrl-f” search of email and message traffic. It also leaves a veritable treasure-trove of information lying around in hundreds of different locations, making it easier to steal or detect. Better training – not only in proper communications procedures/methods, but basic computer literacy, – could solve this problem.

Unfortunately, people are not as good at defending us from cyber attack as John McClane might have you think.
Unfortunately, no matter what Hollywood would have you believe, most cyber attacks can’t be defeated by John McClane.

The speed of cyber-attacks only allows the “labor” side of the equation to be reactive; capital investment would concentrate more money in autonomous and innovative defensive programs: 10th Fleet’s AEGIS. Proactive patrol and detection can be done with greater advances in adaptive self-modifying programs and programs that can learn or understand context.  Recent developments in computing systems point to more organic systems that can”live” in the systems they defend. Biological processors and organic computing allow for hardware that thinks and learns independently, potentially giving defensive networks the added advantage of an instinct and suspicion. The development of mutable indium antimonide magnetic processors mean that the circuit hardware of a device may now be as mutable as the software running it. Imagine the vast new horizons in the OODA loop of defensive cyber systems  with hubs sporting the defensive animal instinct and the ability to re-wire their own hardware. The image painted is dramatic and far-off, but modest investment and staged introduction would serve as a better model than the dangerous possibility of a “human wave” mode of thinking. With better fluid cyber-defense systems guarding more disciplined communicators, the U.S. Navy can guard its forces against Epipolaes.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

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