The Navy continues to learn more about a pair of directed energy weapons, as the service installs the fourth and fifth dazzler system this year and begins land-based testing of a high-energy laser weapon, the program executive officer for integrated warfare systems told USNI News.
The Navy has been in parallel working on an Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN) program, a nonlethal weapon that can confuse instead of shoot down drones, which will become part of the High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance (HELIOS) program that Lockheed Martin has been developing since 2018.
“ODIN is unique because it’s a government-designed, -built, -tested, -installed system, which I think allowed us to go fairly quickly and meet that urgent need that came from the fleet,” Rear Adm. Seiko Okano told USNI News last week.
ODIN is already installed on three Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers and will be installed on two more this year and three more in the coming years, for a total of eight DDGs that will help test out the system during the course of their training and operations, Okano said.
She said the ODIN capability is definitely something the Navy wants for the fleet – the ability to counter intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities from an adversary by using a non-lethal dazzler against pesky drones, rather than shooting them down – but ODIN’s current form factor won’t be the final tool fielded broadly in the fleet.
Testing aboard the eight destroyers will help ensure the whole operational sequence works – from the sailor detecting an unmanned aerial vehicle to targeting it with the dazzler to successfully rendering the UAV useless. That capability, once fully tested, will then be moved over to the HELIOS program to serve as the “optical-dazzler” in the program’s full name.
Okano said much of the Navy’s ODIN team is already collaborating with Lockheed Martin’s HELIOS team to help ensure a smooth transfer of technology.
As for the laser weapon side of HELIOS, Okano said HELIOS began land-based testing a few weeks ago and will be installed on destroyer USS Preble (DDG-88) in December.
Unlike ODIN, which is a bolt-on capability, HELIOS is fully integrated into the ship’s combat system and will be more complicated to install but also more capable due to the integration.
The land-based testing is meant to ensure the integration with the combat system is holding up and to work out any kinks early on, as well as to make sure the laser itself is meeting its requirements.
Once installed on Preble, there will be a lot of work to do to ensure the system is intuitive for sailors to use and is ruggedized enough to handle a maritime operating environment.
“For me, land-based testing is always good and it’s always going to catch a lot of things,” Okano said. But when it comes to the ship-based testing after Preble comes out of its maintenance period, “the biggest challenges with putting systems on the ship are, in my opinion, ship integration, really understanding what that is; ruggedization – did the laser that we put on, is it ruggedized enough to handle the environment that we’re putting it in, which you really don’t really find with land-based testing; and then just making sure that the sailors know how to operate it. So I think those are the three things that I think we’re hoping to learn from Preble, in addition to the land-based testing that we’re going to do all throughout the summer.”
Asked whether HELIOS will be the directed energy system of the future for the fleet or if it’s too soon to tell, Okano said it will depend how lethal the laser beam proves to be during upcoming testing.
“The goal is to create a directed energy system … that’s for anti-ship cruise missile. It’s really another defensive capability so that you don’t exhaust the [Vertical Launching System] onboard and you save those for what you need them for. Do you have another weapon system, a variety of weapon systems, that you can add to your arsenal that it can really protect that ship from anti-ship cruise missiles. That’s where we want to get to,” she explained.
“I think there’s testing we’ve got to do to see if HELIOS meets those requirements.”
Okano said the Navy had a lot of support from the research and development community and from all the military services who are collectively trying to work through high-power laser weapon challenges together. She said the Navy is on a natural path to get there, increasing the capability of its directed energy systems with each new product it fields for testing – but it’s unclear yet if HELIOS can go the distance and provide that cruise missile defense capability for the fleet or if it will be an intermediate step on the way to that final vision.
“I think it is really about trying to figure out the lethality of the system. We really don’t know yet until we test it, but really understanding the lethality of the system and then figuring out in parallel what that next step would be in directed energy,” she said.
“The directed energy systems that we have that we’re deploying this year really have three missions: one, counter-ISR; two, the ability to shoot down UAVs and disable small boats – those are really where we are right now. We’re looking to figure out what does that lethality spectrum look like, and I think where we’re going is really that anti-ship cruise missile capability.”