When it comes to cutting-edge technology, the U.S. Navy is often the one sharpening the tip of the spear. The Navy League’s Sea Air Space Exposition begins April 13, a meeting of the greatest minds among the United States’ defense industrial base, private-sector contractors and key Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. It also celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Navy innovations were developed from the nugget of an idea to fruition on the deckplate of a ship or cockpit of a plane and in many cases that developmental phase it is perhaps the most interesting part of the story.
Here are just a few of the ideas that have developed over the past five decades.
So what do CD players (remember them?), those beeping checkout scanners, and a machine in an eye doctor’s office that can bring vision into focus have in common with one of the Navy’s innovative weapon systems?
They all came from Albert Einstein’s deduction about “stimulated emission.” Now if that sounds a bit R-rated, it is, if you meant Radiation.
Back in 1916, it was Einstein who determined electromagnetic waves had the ability to stimulate excited atoms. Now, in case you are wondering just how atoms can become “excited,” that simply means the state of an atom when it produces energy higher than a sloth in a tree, or the absolute minimum.
Apparently when electromagnetic waves tickle the fancy of atoms or molecules, they send out their own microwaves. By the 1950s, scientists could place a bunch of excited molecules in a contained area and then once stimulated, the molecules would interact with other molecules in the contained area with them to amplify the amount of radiation emitted – sort of like a rave, without the radiation.
It was around that rather simplified explanation that scientists and researchers first created the maser: microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, thanks in part to an investment by the Office of Naval Research. In 1953, Charles H. Townes of Columbia University built the first working maser.
ONR sponsored the first International Conference on Quantum Electronics in 1959 at the Sha-wan-ga Lodge in the Catskills of New York. Townes, who by then picked up a summer job working at the Institute for Defense Analyses, played host for three days to more than 160 laser physicist-inventors (imagine the level of casual, after-hours conversation at that conference) to brainstorm its use and future. While most of the conference topics involved the maser, a new technology using visible light spectra instead of microwaves was the stuff of water-cooler chatter. Townes had already experimented with the process he called the optical maser.
Gordon Gould wrote a paper in 1959: The LASER, Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, which introduced the term laser into the scientific vernacular. Using Gould’s blueprints from his paper, the first laser was built in 1960 by Theodore Maiman at Hughes Research Laboratory. In 1964, Townes shared the Noble Prize in physics for his work on masers and lasers.
With continued ONR backing, laser technology, featuring its sharp and uniform radiating wavelength, is used for myriad naval maritime defenses. Among those is the prototype Laser Weapon System (LaWS), a collaborative effort between ONR, Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and other industry partners.
During operational demonstrations in late 2014 onboard a deployed USS Ponce (AFSB(1) 15), LaWS operated seamlessly with existing ship defense systems. The laser hit and stopped targets that ranged from an unmanned aerial vehicle to a speeding small boat, both possible threats to ships at sea.
According to an ONR release, the system is operated by a video game-like controller and uses a range of escalating options from non-lethal measures, such as optical “dazzling” and disabling, to lethal destruction of asymmetric threats, which includes small attack boats and UAVs.
Data gathered during the weapon’s experimental test phase will guide the development of similar weapons under ONR’s Solid-State Laser-Technology Maturation program, which will develop combat-ready laser prototypes that could be installed on vessels such as guided-missile destroyers and littoral combat ships by the early 2020s, the release noted. The program will also aid airborne and ground-based weapon systems.
Another benefit for the Sailor is increased safety, since lasers run on electricity and do not need traditional propellant and gunpowder-based ordnance found on ships today. They also cost less to build, install and fire than traditional kinetic weapons.
And all because Einstein could tickle an atom.