Nearly a decade ago, the United States Navy embarked upon an ambitious project. To enhance the protection of naval warships from threats such as drones, missiles, and small attack boats -- and to simplify supply chains -- it would develop new laser weapons. More than just hi-tech hardware firing at light speed, these laser cannons would run off power from a warship's engines, needing no resupply of bullets and able to keep firing indefinitely, so long as there was still gas in the tank.

In essence, the Navy would develop a weapon with "infinite ammo" -- a very attractive proposition. But who will build it?

Green laser beam fired in a lab.

Image source: Getty Images.

Military history

The Navy fielded its first demonstration weapon of the project in 2014 -- the unimaginatively named, but cleverly acronymed Laser Weapon System, or "LaWS." For just $0.59 per shot (plus $40 million for the raygun), LaWS could place 33 kilowatts of energy on a target -- not enough to "kill" a missile, but enough to down a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or set a small boat on fire. Over time, the Navy planned to up the weapon's output to 60 kilowatts, 100 kilowatts, and eventually a full megawatt of power.

So how is that going?

Laser weapon progress report

Funny you should ask, because just last month the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) asked the same question, and produced a report to answer it. According to this report, Northrop Grumman (NOC 1.30%) appears to be farthest along in the development of solid state lasers (SSLs) for defense, having built a 150 kilowatt Solid State Laser Technology Maturation (SSL-TM) device that successfully operated on the USS Portland (LPD 27) for more than a year before being scheduled for decommissioning next year. 

A separate but related program, dubbed "Optical Dazzling Interdictor", or ODIN, is being run through the Naval Surface Warfare Center, possibly with assistance from Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.52%), and is designed specifically to "dazzle," blind, and disorient hostile unmanned aerial vehicles so that they lose the ability to navigate and crash into the sea. 

A more lethal variant of ODIN, the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical dazzler and Surveillance -- HELIOS -- is definitely a Lockheed Martin project. Believed to be a 60 kW system, it's twice as powerful as the first-draft LaWS, and has the potential to fire at power levels as high as 150 kW.

Least developed but with perhaps the greatest potential is the Navy's High Energy Laser Counter-ASCM Program (HELCAP) program, which is being designed specifically to take out incoming cruise missiles with a powerful "300 kW+" beam. Again, the Naval Surface Warfare Center is taking the lead on developing this system, with assistance from unnamed "contractor engineers".

In future years, the Navy plans to use the research gathered from all the above systems and integrate them into a more powerful "Surface Navy Laser Weapon System" in two more stages, with power levels that have not yet been confirmed.

The future for laser weapons -- and laser investors

That being said, even roughly a decade into the effort to develop laser weapons for Navy warships, it's still early innings in this project -- and it's anyone's guess which defense contractor(s) will come out on top, and reap large-scale defense contracts from this program. In addition to the companies named above, Kratos Defense & Security, BAE Systems, Boeing, and Raytheon are all also on the hunt for a reliable, effective laser weapon -- and all have won contracts at one time or another, from the Navy or from the Army.

What is clear is that whoever ultimately ends up on top, there's big money at stake for the companies that eventually will get to build military lasers for the Navy.

On the one hand, CRS says that "after procurement, the costs for engagements by laser weapons are substantially lower than any comparable kinetic system, with estimates ranging from" $1.15 per shot for a 60 kW system to $9.20 per shot for a 480 kW laser. At the same time, though, "the Navy estimates the [acquisition] cost of a 60 kW class laser ... will be approximately" $100 million per unit -- about the same price as for a Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jet -- and more powerful 250 kW lasers might sell for as much as $200 million per unit. 

For a defense contractor like Northrop or Lockheed, it doesn't get much better than this: On the one hand, they can promise the Navy cheap long-term operating costs and an improved supply chain, while on the other hand they get to charge high sales costs up front. Whoever ends up winning the Navy's laser contract, this is a battle worth winning.