Iranian fliers pose a deadly indirect threat to U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf

Conventional ballistic projectile weapons are cheap and good at taking out larger targets. However, they rely on line of sight, run the risk of friendly fire, and have difficulty hitting smaller, fast-moving targets like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  Guided missiles are good for attacking targets outside the line of site; but while they certainly could be effective against small targets, the cost of doing so is awfully wasteful (you're spending anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars to eliminate a target worth a thousand dollars or less).

Lasers, while suffering the same line of sight limitations as projectiles, eliminate the friendly fire risk and are faster, travelling at the speed of light in the medium.  That speed in theory should allow them to successfully (and affordably) shoot down enemy UAVs.

I. Meet the Navy's New Laser Weapon, LaWS

After successful demonstrations of UAV shootdowns by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, the Navy looks to put laser systems to the test in the real worldinstalling a laser defense system on the U.S.S. Ponce.  The U.S.S. Ponce is an amphibious transport dock class vessel used in joint land-sea operations with the U.S. Marines.  The vessel was originally commissioned in 1971, built by Lockheed's Lockheed Shipbuilding unit (which closed prior to Lockheed's merger to become Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT)).

The selected laser weapon will be the Laser Weapon System (LaWS), a laser autoturret made by Raytheon Comp. (RTN).  LaWS is essentially a drop-in upgrade/replacement to the projectile based MK 15 Close In Weapon System (CIWS), a.k.a. the Phalanx gun, a radar-guided autocannon.

The LaWS system will be fully operation by Summer 2014, and will be tasked with protecting U.S. ships in the 5th fleet region (which includes the Persian Gulf). 

The high-power infrared laser onboard the most recent model operates at 33 kilowatts and consists of 6 separate solid-state lasers focused on the target.  A Navy official tells Fox News, "It operates much like a blowtorch ... with an unlimited magazine."

LaWS (1 of 2)
The LaWS system is seen here during a temporary installation on the U.S.S. San Diego missile destroyer. [Image Source: Navy/John Williams]

While the initial investment costs have been relatively high, LaWS could save the Navy a lot of money in the long run.  The system cost around $32M USD to make, and will reportedly have initial per-unit costs of around $17M USD, according to Ronald O'Rourke's Congressional Research Service report [PDF].

LaWS (2 of 2)
[Image Source: Navy/John Williams]

However, the cost to fire the laser is only around $1 per shot.  Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder comments, "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."

II. Iran Has Been Spying on U.S. Warship With UAVs for Nearly a Decade

The unofficial goal of the LaWS deployment, ostensibly will be to shoot down pesky fliers from Iran which have been videotaping U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz in recent years.

While Iran is developing larger weaponized UAV warplanes/bombers, a more immediate concern for the U.S. Navy is small, cheap UAVs which Iran may be using to target American warships.

The first reported UAV flyover occurred in early 2006, and was conducted by an Iranian Ghods Ababil ("swallow") UAV flying over the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.  Since the 2006 flyover, multiple UAV flyovers have been detected.  Iran has even released a propaganda video containing UAV footage it filmed over a U.S. carrier:

The Ababil flyer is a propeller-driven design similar to the U.S.'s RQ-7 Shadow (AAI Corp.) or ScanEagle (The Boeing Comp. (BA)).  Like the RQ-7 and ScanEagle, the Ababil launches via a pneumatic catapult, typically mounted in a truck bed.

Ghods Ababil
The Ghods Ababil ("swallow") UAV [Image Source: FARS]

Intelligence indicates that dependent on communications capabilities, the Ababil has a range of 150 km (93 mi) (or 240 km (150 mi) in newer models) and a maximum ceiling of 14,000 ft (4,268 m).  About 2.9 m (9.5 feet) long (shorter than a Volkswagen Beetle) and weighing 83 kg (182 lb.), it can carry a payload of approximately 45 kg (88 lb.) -- enough to haul the camera equipment necessary to spy on U.S. warships.

III. Iranian UAV Feeds Could Help Target U.S. Warships With Missile Strikes

The Iran Project organization suggests that the true goal of these missions is not mere surveillance.  It says that by imaging heat signatures and visual images from certain angles, the UAV could provide targeting information for Iran's anti-ship units in a war scenario.  Those units would use the information to target U.S. warships.

Currently Iran's anti-ship units use Khalij-e Fars (Persian Gulf) ballistic missiles, a derivative of the Fateh 110 missiles equipped with a thermal imaging guidance system.  Developed in 2011 these solid-fuel single-stage supersonic missiles travel at a cruising speed of Mach 3 and have a range of 300 km (186.4 mi).  Once in the generally vicinity of hot targets (e.g. warships), these missiles can home in on them and take them out, employing a 650 kg (0.72 ton) payload.

Iranian UAVs could provide targeting info to Iran's Khalij-e Fars anti-ship ballistic missiles
[Image Source: FARS]

The problem is that the U.S. knows about this capability and may deploy hot decoys during an actual conflict.  Additionally, certain U.S. warships possess air defense capabilities, which could be used to take down incoming ballistic missiles.

Using a database provided by floating UAVs, the Iran Project suggests that Iranian forces could avoid decoys and selectively target air defense vessels, overwhelming them at the start of a conflict.  Additional missiles could then be sent to take out the remaining non-decoy U.S. warships.

However, if you take out UAVs, you remove the ability to differentiate between ships and decoys, or between various kinds of ships.

IV. UAV Terminator

So far the U.S. laser system has been 12 for 12 in UAV shootdown tests, including sea-based tests, according to Raytheon and Navy's Office of Naval Research (ONR).  Those shootdowns include five UAVs destroyed in a May 2009 desert-setting test at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California and four UAVs destroyed in a May 2010 test off the coast of San Nicholas Island in southern California.

LaWS shootdown
So far LaWS has killed a perfect 12 for 12 in UAV target tests. [Image Source: Raytheon]

Peter A. Morrision, program officer for ONR's Solid-State Laser Technology Maturation Program, is bullish on the prospect to use the technology to target real-life hostile fliers.  He remarks, "The future is here.  The solid-state laser is a big step forward to revolutionizing modern warfare with directed energy, just as gunpowder did in the era of knives and swords."

LaWS in action
LaWS in a 2010 live test shot down four UAVs at sea. [Image Source: Navy]

If all goes well, those real world shoot-downs could occur as early as in the middle of next year.

Sources: NPR, Congressional Research Service

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