WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman has been in talks with the Pentagon and the military services on a modular approach to building laser weapons that could engage a greater number of suppliers.

The Defense Department is considering a modular open-system approach, or MOSA, and sent the company a request for information in October. Donna Howland, Northrop’s business development director for directed energy, told Defense News that the approach would allow some companies to specialize in laser generation and beam control, while others focus on the cooling module, the batteries and the fire control subsystem.

MOSA “will allow for an expanded supplier base and makes the whole directed-energy market more healthy, as the MOSA architecture allows for the government to decouple the subsystems from the full system architecture,” she said in a March 31 interview.

Northrop has some experience with this concept already through its 150-kilowatt laser weapon system demonstrator currently installed on amphibious transport dock Portland. The company built the tactical laser core module — the source of the high-energy laser — while the Navy provided the thermal storage and energy storage. Those were combined at a Northrop factory and then installed on the ship.

Prior to that, Howland said, the laser weapon system demonstrator was delivered in October 2019 and then integrated and tested for the first time two months later. She said the team learned of interfaces and connections requiring modification.

“All the things that we learned in that integration is something that we can take to the next program where we would use the MOSA architecture and have a better idea of what particular areas might be of concern and get a head start on ensuring we had a seamless interface,” she said.

Northrop Grumman noted in its feedback to the DoD through a formal response to the RFI and then in a follow-up conversation. The contractor explained that a single company building the entire directed-energy weapon system might be able to achieve greater technical performance in some areas if it could pick the design rather than work to common standards and interfaces.

And the benefits of MOSA, she added, outweigh the drawbacks because it would get more companies involved in directed-energy systems and would build up the supplier base that can contribute to a potentially fast-growing market.

Howland noted the military services are showing great interest in the technology, and today’s demonstrators could eventually become programs in need of robust production lines.

In a separate program for the Air Force Research Laboratory, Lockheed Martin is providing the high-energy laser source, and Northrop Grumman is providing the beam director and beam control.

For its part, the Navy asked for $37.6 million in its fiscal 2023 budget request to build up the supply base for future technology like hypersonic weapons, directed-energy weapons and advanced batteries.

Howland said allowing companies to specialize in these batteries, for example, could generate greater industrial capacity, as opposed to a prime contractor having to handle the entire weapon system alone.

Northrop is currently involved in three main laser weapon programs:

  • The demonstrator on Portland.
  • The Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator, or SHiELD, with the Air Force Research Lab that aims to put a high-energy laser weapon into a pod that a plane could carry.
  • The High Energy Laser Scaling Initiative with the DoD that would develop a 300-kilowatt laser weapon system.

In a separate Feb. 18 interview, Howland told Defense News that laser weapon technology has evolved “leaps and bounds” since developing and installing the demonstrator on Portland. The ship recently returned home from its deployment to the Middle East, during which it conducted a second major at-sea test of the laser weapon in the Gulf of Aden.

Lt. Cmdr. Lauren Spaziano, a spokeswoman for Expeditionary Strike Group 3, which includes Portland, told Defense News that the ship “conducted a successful high-energy laser weapon system demonstration in December 2021 while deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. During the demonstration, the Solid State Laser—Technology Maturation Laser Weapons System Demonstrator (LWSD) Mark 2 MOD 0 successfully engaged a static surface training target. Portland previously tested the LWSD in May 2020, when it successfully disabled a small unmanned aerial system while operating in the Pacific Ocean. This series of tests help prove laser weapons can operate in the maritime environments and be useful to fleet operations.”

Howland said the recent test event was different from the first in that it also included diagnostics on the performance of the laser. Northrop received “a tremendous amount of information on the performance of the laser,” which supplemented the technical logs that sailors send to company engineers.

Howland said the firm oversaw training the first group of fire controlmen assigned to Portland who would operate and maintain the weapon. The training has since been turned over to the Navy, but she’s seen a noticeable difference in sailors’ comfort level using a non-kinetic weapon system between the 2019 installation and now.

“It’s a process as you develop and mature new technology,” she said. “I think having the stick time [in the trainer] has been so important; you can see it in their face, and you can see it when they get off the system after they operated the system. You can see when they do the tracking and they’re shooting the [high-energy laser]. You can see that comfortableness increase in the sailors.”

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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