Navy Rolling Out First Laser-Based Air Defense Weapon

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The Navy recently announced that the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance system, or HELIOS, will be seeing its first action onboard the Pearl Harbor-based USS Preble. The destroyer will be outfitted with the weapon system in 2021 to counter unmanned aerial systems and other surface craft. Down the road, the HELIOS could also be used to defend against cruise missiles.

The HELIOS is part of a contract worth nearly $1.1 billion awarded to Lockheed Martin in 2018 for the development of two high-power laser systems – one ship-based and the other for use on land. It’s one of three next-generation weapons systems currently in development for the Navy, including the electromagnetic railgun.

The HELIOS uses a 60-kilowatt high-energy laser traveling at the speed of light. The energy level is strong enough to eliminate smaller airborne targets ranging in size from a drone to an F-150 truck. However, the system has been designed to handle upgrades that could increase its power by as much as 150%.

The use of lasers is currently in place, but more for disrupting communications or confusing smaller boats and UAVs. According to a number of reports, the HELIOS was developed with strong consideration towards China’s potential use of drone swarming technology. A laser weapon would allow for quicker, more accurate strikes in taking out a larger number of smaller targets, without having to reload or resupply munitions.

Although the efficiency and cost savings of a laser-based system are tremendous, so is the primary challenge – power. As you can imagine, repeatedly firing a weapon that uses twice as much energy as the average American household consumes in a day, is not easy. A significant component to placing the HELIOS on the Preble will be accommodating this energy usage without sacrificing other areas in need of operational power.

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