The U.S. Navy took a step farther away from John Paul Jones and closer to James T. Kirk as it announced that a solid-state laser weapon will be deployed on a U.S. Navy ship in fiscal year 2014. The announcement that the Laser Weapon System (LaWS) will deployed on board USS Ponce (AFSB[I] 15) two years ahead of schedule was made on Monday at the Sea-Air-Space exposition, National Harbor, Maryland. The deployment is the latest in a line of recent recent high-energy laser demonstrations carried out by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Naval Sea Systems Command.

LaWS uses a fiber-optic,solid-state laser as part of a system developed at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC. It’s not intended to replace any weapons on board the Ponce, but rather acts as an adjunct weapon. Ultimately, LaWS will be paired with a rapid-fire anti-missile system, such as the Mk 15 Phalanx CIWS and its radar system.

Obviously, the main attraction of the laser is its ability to destroy targets at long range at the speed of light, and LaWS has many advantages as both an offensive and defensive weapon. The Navy envisions it being used for precision and covert engagements, starting fires, and what it calls “graduated lethality.” It also sees it as a countermeasure against UAVs, missiles and swarms of small boats.

"We expect that in the future, a missile will not be able to simply outmaneuver a highly accurate, high-energy laser beam traveling at the speed of light," Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder said.

LaWS also has the advantage of having a “deep magazine,” meaning that it doesn't need propellants or explosives and can keep firing as long as a power source is available. Also, unlike conventional weapons, each “round” comes at a bargain price. "Our conservative data tells us a shot of directed energy costs under $1," Klunder said. "Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability."

However, since flat-out fighting is rare in naval operations, less lethal applications for the laser system are more likely to be used on a daily basis and therefore of equal value. The optics that LaWS uses for its beams make it ideal for targeting, and the laser can also heat targets, making them easier for infrared tracking to lock on. In addition, the laser can dazzle pilots and electronics of aircraft, surface vehicles, or submarines. Electro-optical sensors and infrared missile systems are particularly vulnerable. LaWS also works as a 21st century version of a shot across the bow, by shining an intense beam of light warning the target that a lethal blast could follow instantly.

For all its advantages, LaWS has its limitations. For example, the rate of fire is restricted by the time needed to illuminate a target and then moving on to the next one, so the system can be overwhelmed. Also, lasers aren't ideal in all situations or against all targets, so it needs to be teamed with another weapon that can put lots of iron into the air at the same time.

LaWs optics

The deployment is partly a demonstration, but it’s also part of the testing and development program. Areas that need addressing are developing the gimbal mounting for the laser, hardening the hardware for a sea environment, dealing with optical turbulence, and evaluating how to use the laser in less-than lethal tasks.

Monday’s announcement was accompanied by the release of a video showing LaWS in action against a drone, which can be seen below.

Source: U.S. Navy