By Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Two new weapon technologies – Solid State Lasers (SSLs) and Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG) – can augment ship defence against incoming missiles, high speed projectiles and unmanned vehicles/drones. Experts argue that if these are successfully deployed, surface warfare could witness a ‘revolution’. Further, these technologies can potentially overcome the limitations of onboard stowage of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and material efficiency of ‘multiple-barrel, rotary rapid-fire cannons’ or the Close-in Weapon System (CIWS), that may necessitate withdrawal from combat for reloading or repairs. These technologies are currently at various stages of development and deployment, and China and the US have either showcased some of them or made the development status public.
Early this year, photographs of a Chinese Type 072III-class landing ship, Haiyang Shan, berthed at the Wuchang Shipyard in Wuhan and fitted with an EMRG went viral. This was perhaps the first time naval-watchers were seeing an EMRG on a Chinese warship. By March, China’s official military website carried a picture of Zhang Xiao, of the PLA Navy’s University of Engineering, receiving a National March 8 Red Banner for her work in electromagnetic launching technology.
The Chinese EMRG project is being developed under the leadership of Rear Admiral Ma Weiming of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Zhang Xiao is a core member of the team. She was quoted as saying that after “hundreds of failures and more than 50,000 tests” the technology was ready for use. The associated power supply system also underwent repeated tests. According to Song Zhongping, a military expert and TV commentator, the Chinese EMRG “has a more stable and [provides] continuous power supply” than the US’ EMRG. The US began work on the EMRG earlier than China and has conducted more experiments.
The US Navy has an active EMRG programme and the last known test was in 2008. Two key technological challenges associated with this US$ 500 million programme involve engineering and metal for the barrel, and supply of high electromagnetic charge for the gun, which only new Zumwalt class of mega-destroyers can provide.
However, the US Navy is a leader in the use of directed energy weapons at sea. USS Ponce, while on deployment in West Asia in 2014, had tested a 30-kilowatt first generation SSL, the Laser Weapon System (LaWS). This US$ 40 million system is considered value-for-money given that the cost of a missile is in millions of dollars when compared with a single shot from a directed energy weapon like the LaWS. It is capable of “frying drones in midair and burning out the motors of helicopters and small watercraft,” “without endangering the lives of any onboard personnel,” which is in accordance with the US Naval Handbook (2007) that states, “US military forces will not employ laser weapons specifically designed to cause permanent blindness.”
The US Navy plans to install an advanced version of the LaWS (more powerful and with greater range) onboard USS Portland, the latest landing platform dock ship of the San Antonio-class. The ship will enter service in April and is programmed to take part in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises.
The US Navy is also seeking funding support of US$ 300 million in the financial year 2019 budget for the Navy Laser Family of Systems (NLFoS). Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has awarded Lockheed Martin a US$ 150 million contract for two prototypes of “high energy laser with integrated optical dazzler and surveillance,” or HELIOS, which will be installed on USS Arleigh Burke fitted with Aegis Combat System and AN/SPY-1 targeting radar for ballistic missile defence.
Unlike China and the US who are competing for technological superiority in the naval domain, the Russians have chosen to focus on land-based transport trailers fitted with lasers, and there are plans for fitting laser systems on aircraft. Russia is fielding a laser weapon system called Peresvet, named after the 13th century monk who died in battle against the Mongol army. According to Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov, Russia is ahead of its competitor, the US. President Putin told Russian lawmakers that Russia has “achieved significant progress in laser weapons” and had gone past the stage of “a concept or a plan,” and that Russian troops have been “armed with laser weapons.” Russia is also known to have developed an aircraft-mounted laser system that can hit satellites and will be “fitted aboard a brand-new, as-yet-unnamed aircraft, as part of a new anti-satellite “complex” that will likely involve ground and radar elements as well.”
The battlefield environment at sea is becoming more ‘complex and murky’ with a variety of classic munitions such as missiles and projectiles in the inventory of both medium and small-size navies, and “pesky” threats from unmanned aerial vehicles and ships, and armed speed boats, and now, swarm drones carrying ordnance. Naval planners may have to develop new strategies and fleet architecture that relies on emerging technologies of the kind discussed above. These plans are sure to impact budgets and shipbuilding expenditures.