The deployment will test the viability of directed-energy weapons, which have limitations, but are a lot cheaper than missiles.
Moving past traditional munitions such as bullets and missiles, the Navy plans to deploy its first laser gun onto the USS Ponce this summer.
The prototype Laser Weapon System, or LaWS, is a directed-energy weapon. Firing an invisible beam of energy, the laser will be able to burn through a target or destroy sensitive electronic equipment. The weapon will be guided by the Phalanx close-in system that is currently used to defend against anti-ship missiles.
The 12-month deployment will serve as a proving ground for the new weapon, allowing the military and defense contractors to see the viability of energy weapons, the Associated Press reported. The laser will be used against drones, small aircraft or high-speed boats headed toward the vessel at ranges of about a mile away. The ability to scale output power would provide commanders with a less-lethal option when dealing with unknown, approaching vehicles.
In April 2013, the Navy released a video of LaWS tracking and destroying a small drone.
The Navy has actually been testing laser weapons for some time now, starting with the use of megawatt chemical lasers in the 1980s, reports National Defense Magazine. The chemical needed for these lasers created significant logistics problems and safety hazards.
The LaWs will instead use a solid state laser, which will be unable to achieve the same power levels as chemical lasers but are safer to use. The power level of the laser is classified – experts speculate that it lies within the range of 15 to 50 kilowatts. The ultimate goal for weapon-grade laser is 100 kilowatts, the amount of power needed to destroy small boats and drones, but cooling limitations and power demands have stymied the deployment of an operational high-energy laser weapon system.
The primary appeal of the technology is cost savings rather than flashiness, AP reported. Missiles and artillery shells are not free – firing an interceptor missile from a warship costs at least $1 million. Meanwhile, laser weapons can be continually fired as long as the ship has power, and each shot would only cost a few dollars.
Despite these advantages, lasers tend to lose effectiveness in certain situations – bad weather, rain, dust, and turbulence in the atmosphere could severely reduce the range of the weapons. The main challenge is to propagate light through sea spray and fog.
Experts are doubtful that directed-energy weapons will replace kinetic weapons in the near future. Instead, laser systems would complement existing kinetic weapons to enhance a layered ship defense, the Navy has said. The current solid state laser would be unable to take down hard targets such as cruise or ballistic missiles because they lack the requisite power levels, but Navy officials are hopeful for the future.
Peter Vietti, spokesperson for the Office of Naval Research, as reported by National Defense Magazine, said the potential of laser weapons is significant. They could be used not only as defensive weapons in the traditional sense but also in “electromagnetic maneuver warfare,” he said. ‘In the future, and at higher power levels, lasers may have a capability to defeat air threats including cruise missiles, providing a robust ship area defense capability with nearly endless magazines.”