Lasers Could Prove Crucial To Navy Survival In The Western Pacific
January 9, 2014
Loren Thompson / Forbes
The Navy's surface warships can't simply abandon the Western Pacific as Chinese anti-ship missiles proliferate. Some senior officials, including apparently the Chief of Naval Operations, think lasers might be the answer. Lasers are tightly focused beams of electromagnetic energy that hit targets at the speed of light, while costing only a few dollars per engagement. The Navy has proven it can hit fast-moving targets with them even in turbulent weather and high seas.
WASHINGTON (January 6, 2014) -- The US Navy's Pacific Fleet is swimming against the tide of history in the East Asian littoral. After three decades of double-digit growth China has emerged as the world's preeminent industrial power, greatly out-producing America in everything from steel to smart phones. Now it is seeking to translate its burgeoning economic might into military power, and the Pacific Fleet is in the way.
Chinese military leaders view development of stealthy strike aircraft, long-range missiles, and undersea warships as defensive moves after centuries of weakness and vulnerability. US military leaders have a different take, viewing the same programs as “anti-access” and “area denial” capabilities that threaten to drive US forces from the region.
Both sides are right: the Chinese are pursuing greater regional influence in much the same manner that other rising nations have in the past, but their goal can only be achieved by reducing American influence in the Western Pacific.
This isn't just a regional issue for Washington, because East Asia has become the industrial heartland of the new global economy. If China continues growing its local military power and political influence, it could come to dominate not only the region but much of the world's productive capacity.
Growing realization of what China's rise meant led the Obama Administration to announce in early 2012 that the United States would shift the main locus of its military planning to the Western Pacific after a dozen years of counter-insurgency warfare in Southwest Asia.
Naval forces will necessarily be the main agent of this shift, augmented by long-range air power. But therein lies the central dilemma that the Pacific Fleet faces. How can 200 warships and a thousand aircraft possibly hope to compete with the world's greatest industrial power on its home turf?
The Seventh Fleet comprising the Western Pacific component of the force is operating many thousands of miles from the US homeland. China's military is operating so close to home that it doesn't even need a first-class Navy to become the dominant regional power.
For Pentagon planners, this challenge breaks down into a series of specific operational issues, the most important of which is how US warships in the area can be protected against large-scale Chinese attacks once the People's Liberation Army acquires the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to direct its increasingly precise weapons against high-value targets.
Aircraft carriers and other US naval assets are not easy to find when operating on a war footing at sea -- the Western Pacific is a very big place -- but China is working hard to solve the problem.
Once the targeting problem is solved, the small number of warships that America's Navy operates near China could potentially be subject to barrages of anti-ship missiles -- both air-breathing and ballistic -- in a future war.
The Pentagon's most recent assessment of Chinese military capabilities states that the People's Liberation Army is making rapid progress in deploying long-range cruise missiles and ballistic weapons with maneuvering warheads that can be used to disable warships far from Chinese shores. The cruise missiles can be launched from aircraft, warships and land bases, while the ballistic missiles can be carried on mobile launchers that are hard to target.
The US Navy has developed layered defenses for intercepting such systems before they can reach their targets at sea, but there is a practical limit to how many defensive weapons can be carried. In addition to space constraints aboard US warships, the defensive weapons cost a million or more dollars each, with the most advanced missile interceptors currently carrying price-tags of $9-15 million.
Thus, a single shoot-look-shoot engagement against a maneuvering anti-ship ballistic warhead might cost over $20 million, and the Navy will have to plan for hundreds of such engagements in a major conflict.
This presents a compelling case for putting more of the Pacific Fleet's capabilities on submarines, since China will probably be unable to track and target them. The Navy is developing a module for insertion into the current Virginia class of nuclear-powered attack subs that will greatly increase their capacity to strike surface targets from ocean sanctuaries using cruise missiles -- thereby making them the weapon of choice in many Pacific scenarios.
But the Navy's surface warships can't simply abandon the Western Pacific as Chinese anti-ship missiles proliferate. They need active defenses that can improve the cost-exchange equation for defenders by greatly reducing the cost of successful engagements. Some senior officials, including apparently the Chief of Naval Operations, think lasers might be the answer.
Lasers are tightly focused beams of electromagnetic energy that hit targets at the speed of light, while costing only a few dollars per engagement. The Navy has proven it can hit fast-moving targets with them even in turbulent weather and high seas.
(Disclosure: Most of the US companies developing laser weapons, including Boeing BA +0.22%, Northrop Grumman NOC +0.59% and Raytheon RTN +0.3%, contribute to my think tank.)
Ronald O'Rourke of the Congressional Research Service, probably the most influential naval analyst in Washington, has written a series of reports highlighting the advantages of lasers in maritime warfare, among which he includes low marginal costs per shot, deep magazines, fast engagement times, tunable effects, reduced risk of collateral damage, and “ability to counter radically maneuvering air targets.” My Lexington Institute colleague Daniel Goure also has written extensively about the potential of lasers as low-cost defensive weapons.
Like any other weapon, lasers have limitations. They can't shoot around obstructions because electromagnetic energy travels in a straight line, and they require potent sources of electrical power.
Their beams tend to be absorbed or scatter over long distances due to interaction with the atmosphere, especially when weather is bad. And although there are several options for generating laser energy at sea, scaling devices up to a point where they are effective against hardened attackers is a challenge.
The Navy currently spends about $40 million annually researching laser weapons, and this year for the first time it will deploy an operational device on a ship in the Persian Gulf to evaluate its potential.
The Persian Gulf is an especially stressful environment for using defensive lasers because local atmospheric conditions degrade beam power and Iranian forces have many options for attacking warships from speedboats to rockets to unmanned aircraft.
However, Navy officials say they have largely licked the problem of beam degradation in conducting close-in engagements, and tests have repeatedly proven the lethality of lasers against all the types of weapons Iran might use.
The main engineering challenge in adapting laser weapons to a Western Pacific environment is scaling power outputs up to a level that can address threats in an affordable fashion. For instance, so-called free electron lasers are safe to operate aboard ships, scale well, and can be tuned to the optimum wavelength for prevailing atmospheric conditions.
However, there are only a handful of vessels in the Navy's 30-year shipbuilding program that could accommodate a system with the dimensions of a free-electron laser, and the costs of integration would be imposing.
With chemical lasers off the table for safety reasons, that appears to leave more compact solid-state lasers as the most viable near-term option. Solid-state lasers (thus named because of their solid crystalline lasing medium) do not scale as readily as other technologies, but recent progress in beam control and other features indicates they will soon be effective against most attacking weapons at ranges of 1-10 miles.
At the very least, therefore, they can supplement costly interceptor missiles in the naval arsenal, leaving the latter weapons for the most difficult engagements.
The likely advances in survivability and affordability are not trivial. A single laser weapon could pay for itself many times over in a battle against Chinese forces if it permitted expensive interceptor systems to be held in reserve for the worst threats.
Remember, it only costs a dollar or so to generate the power for a laser shot, and the devices can cope with a wide array of attacking systems at close-in ranges. When combined with the reach of naval air power and other available defenses, lasers could make the difference between saving and losing many billion-dollar surface combatants in a big conflict.
But the Navy can't buy just one laser weapon. It needs to equip many warships with lasers if the weapons are to be available where they are needed, when they are needed. As of today, the policy debate within the service is lagging behind the technical progress in making defensive lasers operationally viable.
The service established a steering group two years ago to formulate a roadmap for pursuing the technology, but it still doesn't have a program of record for developing an integrated, deployable, affordable solution.
The real question here isn't whether lasers can make a useful contribution to ship defense. That question has already been answered. The question is what the Navy is going to do to sustain its role in the Western Pacific as China leverages its geographical advantages in pursuit of regional military dominance.
Recent trends are not encouraging, and the current approach to protecting the fleet probably can't succeed in a major conflict if the People's Liberation Army solves its reconnaissance problem. The US Navy needs a game-changer, and lasers are looking like one of the few credible options available.
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