It may be the biggest “game-changer” since aircraft carriers, submarines or even Greek fire.

The US Navy, the world’s dominant naval force, has made substantial progress in developing advanced weapons such as solid state lasers (SSLs), electromagnetic railguns (EMRGs) and hypervelocity projectiles (HVPs).

SSLs are shipboard lasers that down incoming missiles by burning holes in their skins or blinding their sensors. EMRGs tap electromagnetic force to propel metal projectiles without powder charges. Their ability to hit sea, air and land targets at devastating speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour makes using explosive warheads unnecessary. An HVP is an interchangeable high-velocity projectile that can be loaded in an electromagnetic launcher or conventional naval gun.

The bottom lines are cost and logistics: Lasers can be fired for less than one dollar a shot if onboard power-supply issues can be resolved. EMRG ammunition and HVPs have an estimated unit cost of about US$25,000 each and can be stored by the hundreds vs. current Navy surface-to-air missiles that are larger and cost anywhere from US$900,000 to several million dollars apiece. Gatling guns that can hit cruise missiles run out of ammunition and must withdraw from battle to reload.

“The solution is to have weapons that don’t cost as much and have unlimited magazine capacity,” Eric Wertheim, a US defense consultant and author told Asia Times.

“Lasers can have an inexhaustible fuel supply,” added Greg Thielmann, a former senior staffer for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

China threat looms

If perfected, the new weapons are expected to be far more effective in countering the swarms of anti-ship cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones that countries like China will likely unleash in a naval conflict with the US — especially given ongoing constraints in US defense spending.

Despite their potential, an updated report in mid-August by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says the actual deployment of such technologies is still years away and that significant development challenges remain. Naval affairs specialist Ronald O’Rourke, the author of the analysis prepared for US legislators, also cautioned that ultimate success in overcoming these challenges “is not guaranteed.”

The fate of these new weapons programs also rests on Congressional action later this year to approve, reject or modify the Navy’s funding requests for their development. Both the House and Senate are mulling various funding cuts or increases for these military R&D categories under the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act and other measures. Congress is also weighing appropriations for other Pentagon programs in directed energy and other advanced weapons systems.

170112-N-PO203-226_(32609261285)
Rear Adm. David Hahn, chief of naval research, assists with loading a Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP) into a traditional powder gun at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, Virginia. Photo: US Navy / John F. Williams

But President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda is in disarray and it’s unclear what Congress will do. “Congress’ decisions on this issue could affect future Navy capabilities and funding requirements and the defense industrial base,” O’Rourke said in his report.

There are also long-term financing issues. Producing such weapons could easily soar into untold billions. President Trump’s proposed increases in military spending have been modest and his efforts to rebuild the Navy have fallen short of campaign promises.

“Where is the money going to come from?” asked Thielmann.

On the upside, O’Rourke noted that the Navy has rarely had so many types of defensive weapons that can be simultaneously developed to tip the balance of power at sea.

“If two or three (of these new weapon technologies) are successfully developed and deployed, the result might be considered not just a game changer, but a revolution,” O’Rourke said in his report.

‘Distributed lethality’

The Navy must ensure that its surface ships can adequately defend themselves against attacks by Chinese or other missiles if a new tactical concept called “distributed lethality” is to succeed.

Under it, offensive weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles are distributed across a wider range of Navy ships. The Navy would also employ new ship formations. This would make it harder for China to cripple the US fleet by concentrating its missile attacks on a small number of high-value capital ships such as aircraft carriers.

The ability to destroy incoming threats also obviates the need to avoid operating in waters that are within range of Chinese weapons such as the DF-21D “carrier killer” missile.

Thielmann cautions that the Navy’s new wonder weapons will take time to deploy even if they are perfected.

“This is not a quick change, and given the way the Navy is, introducing a weapons technology on one ship does not mean that the fleet is equipped. Even after a system reaches initial operational capability, it will be many years before the fleet as a whole reflects that capability,” said Thielmann, a budget specialist in Navy R&D who is now a board member for the nonprofit Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C.

Joseph F. Callo, a New York-based naval writer and retired rear admiral in the US Navy Reserve agrees. “Development is one thing. Production and deployment in significant numbers is something else entirely,” Callo said.

Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times