Think laser weapons are the stuff of fantasy? Next summer will see first Navy deployment

April 8, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 8 April 2014. I remember when laser weapons were the stuff of cartoons and comic books ... except that as kids we used to call them "death rays," "disintegrator rays," or just "ray guns."
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 8 April 2014. I remember when laser weapons were the stuff of cartoons and comic books ... except that as kids we used to call them "death rays," "disintegrator rays," or just "ray guns."

I didn't think then that I'd live to see these kinds of ray guns become reality, but we're almost there.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) announced this week that a prototype Laser Weapon System (LaWS) will be deployed for a year of real-world tests aboard a Navy amphibious assault ship late this summer.

Initially the LaWS weapon aboard the USS Ponce will be for defending the ship against light manned aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and swarms of attack boats of the kind that Iran unleashed against Navy forces in the Persian Gulf back in 2008.

Navy announces plan to deploy laser weapon aboard amphibious assault ship late this summer

Although Navy officials say the LaWS deck-mounted ray gun will not be used initially against incoming missiles, large aircraft, ships, or submerged objects, it can't be long before that kind of capability comes for shipboard laser weapons.

LaWS uses a solid-state infrared beam tunable to high output to destroy the target or low output to warn the target or cripple its sensors. Navy officials say the laser weapon costs about a dollar a shot to operate, doesn't require shipboard space to store projectiles, and never runs out of ammunition.

The LaWS fire control will come from the radar of a Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), which is a standard shipboard Gatling gun designed to shred incoming missiles and aircraft. The laser weapon looks like it takes about as much space as a CIWS does.

Related: Defending against swarms of small, fast attack boats; now I know what they mean

Let's hope it ends up to be more reliable than the CIWS, too. While CIWS officially means Close-In Weapon System, some in industry and the military half-jokingly say it really means "Christ, it won't shoot!" During an attack is no time for a weapon system failure, and the LaWS had better live up to expectations.

That laser weapon's fire-control system had better be extremely accurate, as well. A weapons-grade laser beam can cause a lot of damage pretty quickly. It's been demonstrated to destroy small boats and UAVs.

I just wonder what happens if a friendly or neutral boat or aircraft gets in the way. I haven't seen any studies of potential collateral damage that such a laser weapon could inflict. It had better shoot accurately, or things could get ugly in a hurry.

Related: Lockheed Martin Aculight to develop 60-kilowatt laser to kill UAVs, rockets, and mortars

If testing aboard the Ponce go well, Navy leaders could deploy an improved laser weapon between 2017 and 2021 with an effective range of a mile. While the LaWS weapon reportedly has estimated output power of 15 to 50 kilowatts, future deployed laser weapons could exceed 100 kilowatts.

A laser weapon that can dazzle or kill is almost here. It holds the potential to change maritime warfare forever.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Military Aerospace, create an account today!