The U.S. Navy just deployed a laser weapon aboard an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer to help defend against drone attacks.
There are two sides to the coin when it comes to developing new kinds of weapon systems. On one side, you have the advent of new offensive capabilities that can make you more effective against enemies that have yet to develop a reliable means of countering your new weapon. On the other, you’ve introduced a new kind of weapon to the world, and that means it’s only a matter of time before you too need to devise a way to defend against it.
Drones are an excellent example of this defensive give and take, with the U.S. revolutionizing many facets of its air war doctrine thanks to the advent of unmanned combat platforms, while remaining vulnerable in many ways to the same type of attack from both regional and global bad actors. Drones make it easier, cheaper, and less dangerous to engage enemy targets for whomever’s at the controls, but until recently, defending against drones, even small commercial ones, was just as expensive (and quite a bit more difficult) than engaging manned aircraft. There are a variety of systems in use by the U.S. Navy to defend against inbound aircraft or missiles, but most of these platforms cost more to fire than inexpensive drones cost to replace — making drone warfare a valuable tool for attrition oriented strategies of near-peer warfare–in other words, you can deplete America’s stockpile of air-defense weapons for a whole lot less than America can rebuilt it.
That is, until now (we think). The U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer U.S.S. Dewey was recently equipped with the Navy’s first in-service Optical Dazzling Interdictor, known within the Navy simply as ODIN. The details pertaining to ODIN remain largely classified, but the Navy saw fit to provide a few tantalizing details about what this system can do, and why it’s so important.
The Navy pointed out that ODIN underwent extremely rapid development, going from the chalkboard to the deck of the U.S.S. Dewey in just about two and a half years. This is just one of a number of laser weapons programs under the Navy’s purview, which are slated to see another $68.2 million in 2021 to develop an higher-power weapon system that can engage both drone aircraft and small boats like those employed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in contested waterways like the Strait of Hormuz. ODIN, it would seem, is not powerful enough to be used as a weapon that can take down enemy aircraft, and is instead aimed at “dazzling” the sensor suite on inbound aircraft of missiles.
“Dazzling” with lasers is not a new concept. In fact, the U.S. has worried for years that the Chinese military has been developing ways to “dazzle” satellites in space using powerful ground based lasers. While the laser is engaging a satellite, it would be unable to identify infrared spikes caused by large ballistic missile launches. ODIN seems to work using a similar principle: as inbound drones or missiles transition from GPS tracking to using passive infrared guidance (for the final portion of their descent into their targets), ODIN could confused the platforms and send them flying off course into the sea instead.
That may not sound as cool as frying them in mid-air with a more powerful laser, but the results are the same: ships that are safer from drone attack. It seems feasible that systems like ODIN may soon find themselves installed across many vessels with enough energy production to support them. It’s with that concept in mind that next generation vessels like the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier are being designed with surplus energy production right from the get-go; because Uncle Sam anticipates fielding more and more directed energy and laser weapons as the years progress.