Two radical weapons will revolutionize naval warfare in the second decade of the 21st century, with lasers tasked with anti-aircraft, anti-missile, and anti-small-craft roles, while rail guns will give surface ships an entirely new dimension of ship-killing firepower.
This is according to Forecast International’s new analysis, The Market for Naval Surface Warfare Systems.
“Probably the only way to defend against these weapons is not to be there when they get used,” said Stuart Slade, senior naval analyst at Forecast International.
The ultra-high-velocity shots from rail guns have a demonstrated capability to go through one side of a ship and out the other, and keep going for several kilometres. This very high velocity eliminates the need to allow for a target’s movement since it will not move during the split second a rail gun bolt takes to reach a target. A guidance system is unnecessary for the same reason, and that greatly reduces the cost of a round.
“Extreme accuracy, extreme lethality, and low cost are a very unusual combination,” said Slade.
Laser bolts travel at the speed of light, meaning that observation and engagement are simultaneous. If a target can be seen, then it has already been hit. This cuts the decision time available to commanders down to small fractions of a second and implies that a threat will have to be destroyed before the reality of an attack is demonstrated. The old principle of “wait until the first shot is fired” will become untenable, since that first shot will end the battle.
Slade noted that both lasers and rail guns will have only limited effectiveness against submarines, and both will be restricted to horizon ranges.
“The potential targets for these weapons will either have to be underwater or over the horizon – or both – if they are to survive,” he said.
These new weapons will be responsible for an extremely healthy worldwide market for naval surface warfare systems over the next decade. This market is expected to reach an estimated $13.397 billion in value over the next 10 years. Yet, as surface warfare systems reach a new peak in lethality, they may be too powerful to use. A suspect merchant ship may need to be stopped and searched for drugs or slaves, not summarily blown out of the water.
“Despite the formidable technology now available for naval surface warfare,” Slade added, “most naval actions today involve bringing an apparently civilian ship to a halt and putting a boarding party on board. That can be as dangerous an operation for those taking part as any high-technology surface battle.”