May 7 (UPI) -- Navy leaders and private contractors broke ground this week on what will become the fleet's only dedicated facility to test, fire and evaluate complete laser weapon systems in a maritime environment, Naval Sea Systems Command announced on Thursday.
The Directed Energy Systems Integration Laboratory is projected to open in roughly a year along the Point Mugu Sea Range near Naval Base Ventura County in California.
"The value of the Point Mugu Sea Range is that you can put a facility of this nature right on the coastline and it can operate in the sea range, and take advantage of that testing capability," Thomas Dowd, range department director of Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, Naval Air Systems Command, said Tuesday during the small groundbreaking ceremony. "The decision to build it here is a recognition of the value of the partnership we have between location, geography, maritime environment and engineering talent at the two centers."
The facility is intended to recreate as realistically as possible how High Energy Laser weapons behave on a Navy ship platform, and will help establish how conditions like moisture, humidity, salt, fog, differing air densities and temperature will affect laser performance.
Lab staff will also test how ships' systems power and cool the energy-intense weapons, and will test them by shooting at targets on the sea range and air over the range.
"This lab is a great win for the Navy, and it further affirms that even during a crisis, the Navy and NAVSEA have been -- and continue to be -- open for business, executing our mission," said Capt. Ray Acevedo, commanding officer of Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme Division.
This year, the Navy has announced multiple deals and developments related to laser weapons. Lockheed Martin was awarded a a $22.4 million deal in March for work on a Layered Laser Defense system prototype on board a littoral combat ship, and the installation of an Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy, or ODIN, on the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Dewey in February.
In March, Lockheed also announced it had completed a critical design review for the High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance, or HELIOS, system.
"What's happened is that in the last five to 10 years, there's been a revolution in laser technology," Rob Afzal, a senior fellow at Lockheed Martin Rotary and Mission System, told UPI.
Previous laser weapons were incredibly powerful -- but too large and heavy to transport in a way that would make them useful in combat, Afzal said.
The tipping point was the development of fiber lasers, which use fibers dipped in rare earth elements and are much more stable and powerful than other lasers.
"That's what really started to push up the power lasers," David Stoudt, a senior executive advisor with Booz Allen Hamilton and former Navy engineer, told UPI.
The estimated cost of the lab, which will be built by Harper Construction Co. Inc., of San Diego, is roughly $23 million.
Navy in-service engineering agents, or ISEA, for ship-based combat and laser systems will operate DESIL, enabling the lasers to support the fleet as crucial components of the Navy's maritime superiority strategy.
"The ISEA engineers will recreate issues, and investigate engineering issues for deployed DE-installed ships, and use the lab as a test range asset," said Marcos Gonzalez, project lead for DESIL. "DESIL could also bring in industry-developed versions of lasers, and developers could perform firing exercises on the test range."
The range may also be made open to others in the directed energy community, such as university researchers, Gonzalez said.