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The laser was mounted aboard the USS Paul F. Foster, a decommissioned U.S. destroyer-class warship.  (Source: Destroyers Online)

The laser strikes the engine of the moving motorboat.  (Source: ONR via BrightCove)

On fire the ship is now crippled as it is struck by four foot waves.  (Source: ONR via BrightCove)

Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy hope to use similar lasers against small aerial targets and unarmored boats in the near future.  (Source: Northrop Grumman)
The era of laser warfare may have just begun

United States Navy ships each year face many threats.  While large threats mandate heavy munitions or rockets, the majority of threats are from small motorboats with armed occupants.  Dealing with these threats is tricky -- larger munitions are potentially lethal and expensive.  But using smaller munitions places the ship's crew at risk.  Thus the non-lethal accuracy of a laser weapon would be a highly desirable tool for the U.S. maritime warriors.

Sailors' dreams of having such a weapon at their disposal advanced a step forward to reality, with Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC) and the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) completing the first live test [press release] of a solid state weapon laser at sea. 

On Wednesday the USS Paul Foster, a decommissioned destroyer, was retrofitted with Northrop Grumman's 15-kilowatt solid-state high-energy laser (HEL) prototype.  The laser creates a high-energy burst of light by running electrons through specially designed pieces of glass or crystals.

The eventual goal of the $98M USD Maritime Laser Demonstrator (MLD) is to install 100-kilowatt lasers on ships.  But the smaller 15-kilowatt system proved it might be sufficiently deadly for some applications.

Motoring into the U.S.'s Pacific testing range near San Nicholas Island off the coast of central California, the ship set its aim at a large inflatable motorboat, moving a mile away.  Firing a pulse of light, the experimental laser struck a crippling blow [video] damaging the engines and setting them on fire.  The target was crippled, floating dead in the ocean.

The success was not easy.  The scientists had to deal with ocean waves that could reach four feet in height.  And they had to deal with the day's humidity and the salty air over ocean waters.

But adverse conditions did not stop the laser from finding is mark with a killing shot.  Describes Rear Adm. Nevin Carr [profile] in an interview with Wired's Danger Room, "I spent my life at sea and I never thought we’d see this kind of progress this quickly, where we’re approaching a decision of when we can put laser weapons on ships.  When we were doing the shot and the engine went, there was elation in the control room.  It’s a big step, a proof of principle for directed energy weapons.  [Ten kilowatt beams like the test laser] can be operated in existing power levels and cooling levels on ships today."

The U.S. Navy could see deployment of lasers to warships over the course of the next decade, though their installation will require new crew training and the development of new battle tactics to fully leverage their capabilities.  Small lasers could be used effectively both against airborne targets like UAVs and against small ships that lack thick metal plating.

Northrop Grumman's rival Raytheon Comp. (RTN) has successfully killed UAVs with a laser system that couples six solid-state lasers with an output of 32 kilowatts.

In the more distant future (the 2020s, specifically) the Navy is working on a "superlaser", a megawatt-class laser capable of cutting through 2,000 feet of steel per second and offering battle-sinking power.  The more powerful ONR laser is called the Free Electron Laser.  Leveraging a new technique called free electron injection, the project has made significant progress already.

Adm. Carr comments, "This is an important data point, but I still want the Megawatt death ray."

The U.S. Navy is not alone in its thirst for laser guns.  The U.S. Air Force is also testing new laser designs that could be mounted to helicopter gunships and used to cripple UAVs, missiles, Humvees and lesser vehicles.


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Not a ship.
By chromal on 4/11/2011 10:46:19 AM , Rating: -1
You might have crippled it, but that's not a ship. That's not even a boat. That's a skiff, or runabout, and you're not likely to see many on the high seas.

The had to shoot the laser at a low albedo spot, like the outboard engine cowl. I was expecting to see a surplus destroyer sunk. Call me when you have lasers that can sink hardened warships.

RE: Not a ship.
By Boze on 4/11/2011 10:50:39 AM , Rating: 4
Unfortunately that's not where modern warfare is going.

Most of the threats the U. S. Navy faces on a daily basis are from these small boats, not from some destroyer. Somali pirates, Iraqi insurgents attacking, or attempting to attack the Al Basrah oil terminal, all use small craft like this. USS Cole? Small craft.

Right now, this laser could be mounted on many Navy and be a benefit to the crew.

The only possible way we're going to need the weaponry to sink a destroyer or larger is if we entered into a war with China or Russia. That won't happen for awhile, if ever.

Especially considering electronic warfare is more crippling to a large enemy.

RE: Not a ship.
By Drag0nFire on 4/11/2011 11:24:18 AM , Rating: 1
I was impressed by the pics in the article. But if you actually look at the video, it happens so slowly... definitely less impressive. Any pirate worth their salt would be able to dodge once they realized what was happening. Or get out a mirror...

RE: Not a ship.
By MrTeal on 4/11/2011 11:33:52 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know, it seemed to take about 5 seconds from the time that the laser hit until the motor caught fire. You very well might not notice that until it's too late, especially since you're likely concentrating on that big steel warship bearing down on you. If the production version halved the time, there would be almost to time to react.

RE: Not a ship.
By Jaybus on 4/11/2011 2:30:50 PM , Rating: 3
It was a proof of concept test with a 15 kW laser. It was more about target acquisition and tracking a small target bobbing up and down in 4 ft swells. Production models are to range from 100 kW to 1 MW.

Since it could lock on and track in 4 ft swells, it is highly unlikely any sea craft could maneuver away, regardless of a pirate's salinity.

Mirrors are not 100% reflective. A typical mirror has around 85% reflectance. Really expensive laboratory quality mirrors might reach 95%. 15% of 100 kW is 15 kW. So if the motor was protected by mirrors, a 100 kW laser would do to it what the 15 kW laser did to the black painted motor.

Of course, since you can't see the laser at all, you wouldn't know they were firing until your motor caught fire.

RE: Not a ship.
By MrTeal on 4/11/2011 11:27:58 AM , Rating: 4
This entire test screams anti-pirate weaponry to me. I doubt they plan to use lasers any time in the near future against hardened targets; planes and missiles are just so much more effective than a weapons system where you have to get into close visual range.

I see this being used on destroyers patrolling in areas like Somalia where you have a number of small, fast, maneuverable craft filled with heavily armed occupants. Rather than try to take them out with the big guns, you disable the craft and bring them into custody.

RE: Not a ship.
By MrBlastman on 4/11/11, Rating: 0
RE: Not a ship.
By FITCamaro on 4/11/2011 1:21:46 PM , Rating: 1
So now the US Navy resorts to cannibalism? Well I guess if the Democrats could do as they wished to the military, they might have to resort to that.

RE: Not a ship.
By FITCamaro on 4/11/2011 1:20:08 PM , Rating: 2
The last direct, successful attack of a US Navy ship, the USS Cole, was done by a small skiff like this. And it left 17 people dead and a rather large hole in the side of the boat.

RE: Not a ship.
By bh192012 on 4/11/11, Rating: 0
RE: Not a ship.
By Reclaimer77 on 4/11/2011 2:30:58 PM , Rating: 2
He didn't say lasers would have. He's simply pointing out to the OP that small vessels can still be threats.

RE: Not a ship.
By FITCamaro on 4/11/2011 2:57:27 PM , Rating: 1
You'd think this kind of reasoning would be common place....Idiocracy takes one more step towards the realm of reality.

RE: Not a ship.
By bh192012 on 4/11/2011 2:11:52 PM , Rating: 1
Lasers wouldn't have made any difference with the Cole. They saw the boat approach, but were not allowed to fire upon them due to their rules of engagement.

Also our warships have plenty of weapnos to take out small boats, like .50 cals etc. Lasers will be useful once they are higher power, can repeatedly fire w/o overheating and have their targeting figured out.

RE: Not a ship.
By TSS on 4/11/2011 10:32:52 PM , Rating: 1
This weapon is not ment for ship to ship combat, atleast not large ship combat. There's plenty of threat from small ships, and you don't try to hit those with 19 inch guns. Especially when you might want to not kill the people on board.

This weapon however is made for large ship to ship combat and is developped for just that reason:

Laser my ass. I'll take 2 of these.

RE: Not a ship.
By cactusdog on 4/12/2011 2:00:44 AM , Rating: 2
the problem is too many dickheads if justin beiver changed his name to Billy Beeper the problem would be solved.

"Young lady, in this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!" -- Homer Simpson

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