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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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RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Reclaimer77 on 4/11/2011 2:39:36 PM , Rating: 3
What would you be using that costs $10 million each? There are numerous other things that will do the job for much cheaper.

Well I was assuming non projectile weapons. You know, anti-ship sea skimming missiles. Cruise missiles etc etc.

Or was I really supposed to assume this technology is really being developed so we can only use it against things the size of bass boats? No. It's going to be mached up bigger and bigger and advanced until, eventually, it WILL be competing directly with much less cost effective solutions. Like the before mentioned guided projectiles.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By 91TTZ on 4/11/2011 4:58:05 PM , Rating: 4
It's not really going to compete against the other guided missiles since it's going to be very range limited.

Since a laser only goes in a straight line, you're going to run into limitations with enemy ships being over the horizon when they're far away. You'll probably be limited to 20 miles or so.

If a ship is shortly beyond that, they could shoot a RIM-67 Standard at it ($400k) which is good for about 60 miles, or they could use a Harpoon ($1.2 million, good for over 60 miles), or they could use a Tomahawk (about $1.4 million) that's good for about 1,300 miles.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Reclaimer77 on 4/11/2011 7:01:49 PM , Rating: 3
So let's say at 20 miles you have a few options. Lob stupid shells at the target, hoping to get a hit. Fire a million dollar missile, let's not forget the cost of the launcher systems and sub-systems and support systems...

OOOORRR warm up the megablaster!

I think saying this would "not" compete is being a bit presumptuous. Although, touche', I could be being a bit too optimistic.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By tayb on 4/11/2011 7:21:32 PM , Rating: 2
It's range limited in the sense that Walkie Talkies and phones were once range limited. Who knows what distances we will be able to achieve with this kind of technology but I would seriously doubt the first iteration of the device maxes out the distance.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By MrTeal on 4/11/2011 10:21:17 PM , Rating: 2
I think every scientist on this project who's not a member of the Flat Earth Society is probably aware of the maximum range of this weapon.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Reclaimer77 on 4/12/2011 7:31:59 AM , Rating: 2
The same was said about radar. Now we have over-the-horizon Radar technology.

Never underestimate man's ability to push the limits of something.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Paj on 4/12/2011 7:54:56 AM , Rating: 2
Thats only because the radar signal bounces off the ionosphere. I doubt a laser beam could do that without attentuating badly, if at all.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By vol7ron on 4/12/2011 10:58:54 PM , Rating: 2
I want to use Cerebro and kill all the mutants

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By rcc on 4/13/2011 6:13:45 PM , Rating: 2
They'll use flying jellyfish with big mirrors.

By voodoochile123 on 4/15/2011 1:10:30 AM , Rating: 2
I agree, there is a solution to everything. Maybe some kind of mirror/booster fitted to a UAV would be the first step. But who knows what the boffins will come up with. It's obvious to me that some day, not too far away, this will be fitted in to a plane, so line of sight won't be as big of an issue. Then it will be on a satellite etc.

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