The US Navy’s holiday wish list

Image credit: Parquerama
Date:31 December 2008

Research priorities expose the pentagon’s technological ambitions and worries at sea.

Early this year, the Office of Naval Research’s Office of Transition in the US will release requests for proposals to fund its advanced naval technology programmes. The office’s initiatives have a shelf life of five years, with an expectation that real-world products will reach the fleet by the end of that time. At a recent conference in Washington, DC, transition office director Joseph Lawrence detailed the shipboard equipment, weapons and robots that will ensure the US Navy can safely conduct combat and humanitarian missions anywhere in the world.

1 Desalination machines
The Navy needs smaller devices that can produce clean water in ports and from other brackish sources close to shore. One key is upgrading the filters used on current reverse-osmosis systems with new materials that can screen tinier particles.

2 One-size-fits-all bombs
Carrier aviators supporting troops on the ground could use the same bomb for various missions by setting the blast size and fragmentation level from the cockpit. The new bomb would reduce collateral damage and remove costly speciality weapons from arsenals.

3 Multi-target tracking lasers
Swarms of small boats can endanger any carrier group, so US helicopters and other aircraft need new sensors in order to fire precision weapons at many targets simultaneously. The system can designate several targets with a single, quickly flickering laser beam.

4 New periscope
The “silent service” is seeking submarine masts studded with sensors to allow better range and clarity during bad weather. The data the periscope receives will be processed by intelligent software that will autonomously recognise objects and alert sailors to threats.

5 Mine-hunting robots
The Navy wants a new robot that can detect mines in shallow water, where reverberations interfere with sonar. The new drone will likely combine low-frequency broadband technology with small synthetic aperture sonar to get clear images of minefields.

The Navy’s future power crunch

The Navy is developing new weapons and sensors that demand large amounts of electrical power, but it is not clear that future ships will have the juice. Current ships use most of their energy to run engines, so some weapons being developed would need new ships. Two promising but power-intensive systems are an electromagnetic rail gun that could launch a kinetic shell hundreds of kilometres at speeds approaching Mach 7, and an ongoing laser programme that in 2010 will build a 100 kW free-electron laser that could destroy small boats, aircraft or missiles.

The Navy recently cancelled all-electric DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers that could switch power from propulsion to weapons as needed. Instead, older Arleigh Burke designs (in photo) with less available power will be built. Three already ordered Zumwalts will probably serve as trailblazers, but widespread deployment of the advanced systems is now less certain.