The U.S. Navy recently reported that its High-Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-Dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) lasers could be mounted on its Zumwalt-class destroyers as early as 2021. This is a credible new technology that with refinement and placement on destroyers would be remarkable upgrades to its defense and provide additional offensive firepower.
Currently lasers require a good deal of power to maintain a steady and effective beam over long distances. As Americans have known since the Gulf War, and the Russians found out in Syria, lasers can lose effectiveness in hazy atmospheric conditions created by sandstorms, smoke, or heavy wind that kicks up dust. They may require cooling and they usually required large power sources. It is advances with the latter two factors, the cool-down rate and power storage on destroyers that allow the technology to be miniaturized and employed.
Even then, the technology still has limitations. The effective range of these laser weapons is relatively short. It can only engage one target, most likely a missile, at a time. The laser systems on destroyers both track and fire which frees up their radar and other systems that make American sensors less likely to be overwhelmed by swarms. The system must sustain its laser on the target for a certain amount of time in order to damage, destroy, or confuse the sensors or guidance systems of the oncoming missile. But it would have unlimited ammunition for laser attacks and it could be used as a non-lethal or low collateral means. This equates to saving million dollar missiles that require returning to base to restock.
This system has a long way to go before it enters even the testing phase and it would have limitations once fielded. Yet it has the potential to mitigate one of the biggest threats that America faces, which makes it incredibly promising despite its limitations. Potential adversaries like China and Russia are fielding missiles that are faster, harder to track, and whose launch rate could overwhelm American defenses. This inspires a fearmongering click-bait headline almost every week. But new technology provides upgrades that will provide an additional layer of anti-missile defense.
A single weapon system strengthening a single layer is not a huge deal and certainly not a game changer. But enhancing multiple layers such as increasing the power of radar on Arleigh Burke-class cruisers, fielding the F-35s, putting lasers on F-15s, engendering new hyper velocity rail guns, and adding lasers on Zumwalt-class destroyers makes it much tougher for the extremely vaunted carrier-killing or hypersonic missiles of Russia and China to deliver on their grand promises. America should always be concerned about new technology and respond accordingly. The potential use of lasers suggests the game is very much the same despite this new technology.