US Navy develops directed-energy systems to counter hypersonic missile threats from China and Russia

Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, said Thursday that developing systems that would use high-energy lasers or high-powered microwaves to destroy a threat is a top priority for the Navy.

« From a defensive perspective, we’re focused on threat, » Gilday said Thursday during an event at the Heritage Foundation. « We don’t ignore it. »

Hypersonic missiles, which travel at five times the speed of sound or faster, pose a unique challenge to US defensive systems. They fly much faster than traditional missiles and don’t fly like ballistic missiles on predictable trajectories, making them much harder to detect and intercept.

Gilday noted the progress adversaries like Russia and China have made in hypersonic weapons. « They’re a significant concern, » Gilday said. « Both Russia and China are developing these capabilities and will field them shortly. »

Russia used its Kinzhal hypersonic missile in the war in Ukraine, while China tested a hypersonic hover vehicle last year.

Directed-energy systems, which use lasers or microwave emitters to destroy a system or disrupt its electronics, are a potential option for defending against hypersonic weapons.

This month, the Navy installed Lockheed Martin’s HELIOS laser system on the USS Preble. HELIOS, which stands for High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance, is the latest system in the Navy’s efforts to deploy more powerful and capable defensive laser weapons.

Heidi Shyu, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, has identified directed energy systems as a technology area of ​​critical importance to the Department of Defense. For years, directed-energy systems that use lasers or microwave emitters to destroy targets were science fiction, but the technology has finally matured to the point where it can be deployed by the military, said Shyu earlier this year.

In 2014, the Navy successfully tested and deployed a laser weapon system on the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. The system was capable of engaging drones, small planes and small boats. Last year, the Navy tested a more advanced laser system on the USS Portland.

The United States is still testing various hypersonic systems, some of which have been delayed by a series of test failures.

The Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, suffered three consecutive failures in testing before its latest success in April.
In July, a test of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body failed after an « anomaly » occurred during the first full system test, the Pentagon said. The Common Hypersonic Glide Body’s previous test, a Navy-Army joint venture, also ended prematurely when the booster rocket failed. Without the booster rocket, the Pentagon could not conduct a test of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body.

But Gilday said Thursday the services were still committed to the program’s success. The army will be the first to deploy the missile next year, while the navy plans to put the missile on destroyers in 2025 and fast attack submarines in 2028.

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