US Navy Plans To Pimp Up Its Nuclear Subs With Mysterious Laser Weapons

An illustration of one of the US Navy's Virginia-class submarines. Wikimedia Commons

Rachel Baxter 06 Feb 2020, 20:18

The US Navy is apparently on a mission to equip its nuclear submarines with laser weapons, according to a report by Popular Mechanics, even though lasers don’t actually work underwater.

Although not quite the ray guns of the sci-fi world, laser weapons do exist. They’re most commonly used to draw a spot on a target to guide a weapon’s aim or to blind the sensors of incoming missiles. Nevertheless, super-powerful lasers that can actually act as weapons themselves have been in the works for years. A limitation of this tech is that a huge amount of power is required to produce a laser with enough energy to be destructive.

While lasers work well above the water, traveling at the speed of light, below the waves they’re not so useful. Just as ordinary light scatters in water and fails to penetrate very far, particularly at darker depths, the concentrated light in a laser gets scattered and absorbed by the water.

So, why on Earth would the Navy be planning to add laser weapons to vessels famous for being fully submerged in the big blue? Well, according to Popular Mechanics, the weapons systems will likely be attached to the subs’ photonics masts – the sensor on top of a submarine that can jut out of the water while the body of the craft stays underwater. Therefore, the laser weapons will most likely be used above the water’s surface, which suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Another challenge to laser weapons is the amount of power they require. That’s why the US Navy appears to only be planning to attach them to a class of nuclear submarine known as the Virginia class.

“One of the major drawbacks of HELs [High Energy Lasers] is their energy requirement, something that is obviated if one places them on a nuclear-powered submarine, which generates enough power to operate them as well as everything else on board,” Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow in Sea Power at the Royal United Services Institute, told David Hambling at Popular Mechanics. A project is currently underway to work out how best to connect a laser weapon system up to the sub’s nuclear engine, and is set to be completed this year.

Virginia-class, aka SSN-774-class, submarines are the US Navy’s newest underwater military venture and are currently in use. They’re equipped with the latest weapons technology and are designed for intelligence gathering as well as attack and defense.

So what exactly will the laser systems be used for? That’s anyone’s guess; the Navy itself is reluctant to spill the details. Speculation includes short-range attack as well as defense against airborne attackers. It will be at least a few years before Virginia-class subs are equipped with laser weapons and even then, their exact use may well remain top secret.

[H/T: Popular Mechanics]

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