The Cost Paradox Hindering the Deployment of Directed-Energy Weapons
In recent encounters with Houthi drones, U.S. Navy warships have resorted to traditional guns and missiles, raising questions about the absence of advanced directed-energy weapons designed for such scenarios. A congressional report sheds light on the paradox preventing the Navy from utilizing next-generation lasers to neutralize threats more efficiently.
The Navy’s success in intercepting Houthi drones is marred by the exorbitant cost of using interceptor missiles, priced at $11 million each, against relatively inexpensive drones that can cost merely a few thousand dollars. Seeking cost-effective alternatives, the military has invested in directed-energy weapons, specifically lasers, known for their ability to provide a low-cost, virtually unlimited solution for intercepting drones at scale.
The U.S. Navy has already deployed advanced laser systems, such as the Optical Dazzler Interdictor Navy (ODIN), on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Additionally, the HELIOS laser, ranging from 60 kW to 150 kW, has been installed on the USS Preble in 2022. Ongoing programs, including the High Energy Laser Counter (HELCAP) and Layered Laser Defense (LLD), signify the military’s commitment to developing and deploying laser technologies.
Despite successful deployments, technical challenges remain in scaling up lasers to effectively target fast-moving threats. The speed of the laser beam itself poses no obstacle, but at current power levels, it requires multiple seconds of tracking to inflict sufficient damage on a drone. Efforts are underway to address these challenges, with proponents suggesting that fiber lasers could enhance their effectiveness against drones.
However, a bureaucratic hurdle hampers the widespread deployment of ship-mounted lasers, as outlined in the congressional report. The Navy faces a paradoxical situation: it cannot estimate procurement costs for laser weapon systems because there are no historical programs of record for shipboard lasers in the Department of Defense. This lack of precedent prevents the Navy from drawing comparisons, particularly in logistics and life-cycle cost.
Current estimates indicate that a 60 kW class laser, with mature beam control and combat system integration, could cost approximately $100 million in limited quantities. For more powerful lasers or those with greater beam control complexity, the price tag may reach up to $200 million per unit. The crux of the matter is that, in the short term, the U.S. might end up paying more to save on expensive missiles.
As the Navy navigates this paradox, the delay in deploying laser technology underscores the complex interplay between cost considerations, technological challenges, and bureaucratic intricacies in modern military strategy.