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US Navy ship-mounted 30kW laser weapon tested in Persian Gulf

10 Dec 2014

Plans are afoot to increase power to 150kW and to mount such weapons on military aircraft and land-based vehicles.

Officials at the US Office of Naval Research today announced that a laser weapon system (LaWS) — based on a 30kW laser that "brings significant new capabilities to America’s sailors and marines" — has been successfully deployed and operated on a naval vessel stationed in the Persian Gulf.

The demonstrations, which took place from September to November aboard USS Ponce, were significant not only because they showed a laser weapon working aboard a deployed U.S. Navy ship, but also because LaWS operated seamlessly with existing ship defines systems, said the ONR.

Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, told a press conference in Washington, DC, “Laser weapons are powerful, affordable and will play a vital role in the future of naval combat operations. We ran this particular weapon, a prototype, through some extremely tough paces, and it locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality.”

”On USS Ponce, LaWS has been in test and development mode since August 2014 in the Gulf. We are now beyond testing – it’s operational and the laser weapon is not in a box waiting for a special occasion. The captain of the USS Ponce has himself been authorized to take the decision whether to use the LaWS in anger, which has taken at least a year of negotiations at the Pentagon.”

He added that the US Navy would comply with the Geneva Convention conditions that prevent directed energy weapons being used against personnel but if, for example, hostile boats threatened a US asset, they could be subjected to a range of powers from a warning “dazzle” through damage to onboard technologies to full destructive power.

Klunder said the cost of this development was about $40 million to put LaWS onto the USS Ponce, including “non-recurring costs of coolers and diesel generators”. Key supporting developments included optics, control and targeting software, the laser gun mount and beam stabilization systems.

During the tests, LaWS — a collaborative effort between ONR, Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Research Laboratory, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division and industry partners — hit targets mounted on a speeding oncoming small boat, shot down a Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, and destroyed other moving targets at sea.

Sailors who worked with LaWS over several months since it was installed reported the weapon performed flawlessly, including in adverse weather conditions of high winds, heat and humidity. The system is operated by a video-game like controller, and can address multiple threats using a range of escalating options, from non-lethal measures such as optical “dazzling” and disabling, to lethal destruction if necessary.

Land and airborne systems to come

Data regarding accuracy, lethality and other factors from the Ponce deployment will guide the development of weapons under ONR’s Solid-State Laser-Technology Maturation program. Under this program, industry teams have been selected to develop cost-effective, combat-ready laser prototypes that could be installed on vessels such as guided-missile destroyers and the Littoral Combat Ship in the early 2020s.

The developers commented that the laser weapon breakthroughs will ultimately benefit not only U.S. Navy surface ships, but also airborne and ground-based weapon systems. Benefits include improved levels of precision and speed for naval war fighters and increased safety for ships and crews, because laser weapons are not dependent on conventional weapons' propellants and explosives.

The laser guns run on electricity and can be fired as long as there is power. They also cost less to build, install and fire than traditional kinetic weapons—for example a multimillion-dollar missile. Klunder added, "At a cost of around 59 cents per shot, there's no question about the value LaWS provides. Affordability is a serious concern for our defense budgets, so this will more effectively manage resources to ensure our forces are never in a fair fight.”

Klunder contrasted this apparent economy with the cost of a standard ship-based “SM2” missile that typically costs around $2 million per unit. He added that the Navy has plans to develop high power LaWS of 100 to 150 kW. “We are working on the possibility of putting such a system on aircraft.”

The following video shows the LaWS system in action during the test and development phase between August and November 2014:

About the Author

Matthew Peach is a contributing editor to optics.org.

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