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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 dsx724 on 4/11/2011 6:49:13 PM , Rating: 1
This weapon allows for untraceable targeted killings from miles away that conventional and nuclear weapons cannot. Output power of 25KW over a fraction of a second will easily be fatal to humans. You can fit a megawatt class generator into a van. There should be treaties banning the development of such weapons before they become a threat to our society. Providing funding for overcoming the technical challenges limiting this tech is like pouring fuel on the fire.

The next time the president has to go anywhere, they would need to search every facility within a five mile radius or drive him in an M1

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Reclaimer77 on 4/11/2011 6:50:48 PM , Rating: 2
You're being absurd.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Pessimism on 4/12/2011 10:12:29 AM , Rating: 2
No, he's not. As this tech develops, others will copy it. A whole new class of defensive tech and countermeasures will be needed.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Reclaimer77 on 4/12/2011 3:53:30 PM , Rating: 2
No, he's not. As this tech develops, others will copy it. A whole new class of defensive tech and countermeasures will be needed.

First off, you don't just McGyver up a home laser to assassinate someone with. Just trying to build one will get your red flagged as many of the materials needed are restricted. And his claim that a van can hold the power source, ok sure, maybe. But how are you going to GET that power supply? Wal-Mart?

Secondly, the idea that suddenly assassinations will skyrocket due to lasers is absurd. Rocket launchers are far easier to acquire and are just as deadly. How many RPG attacks have been used against a U.S President, to use his example?

Why bother spending millions on something, assuming you can even get your hands on everything required, when in all cases a .50 cal sniper rifle or hand held rocket launcher is cheaper, more effective, and easier to obtain and dispose of?

Stop fearmongering.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By MrTeal on 4/12/2011 12:57:14 PM , Rating: 3
A van is pretty small for 1MW. This is a 1.4MW generator

Also, I'd like to see a report that 15kW for a fraction of a second would be fatal to a human. Even if the fraction is 1/2 and assuming no atmospheric attenuation and 100% absorption, that's only 7.5kJ of energy, enough to heat 1 kg of water 1.8 degree C. If it got you in the eyes you'd be blind, and if the spot size were small enough you'd get very serious burns, but death would probably take longer.

Now, even if 15kW was lethal, how big is the weapon? This isn't some crappy laser pointer, the size of the optics needed to collimate a laser to a small dot a mile or more range is huge. This won't be a portable weapon any time in the near future.

Compare that to a 50cal sniper rifle. In capable hands it's range is over a mile, it can be moved, set up and shot by one person if need be. Available now, and yet society has survived.

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By Reclaimer77 on 4/12/2011 3:59:53 PM , Rating: 2
Compare that to a 50cal sniper rifle. In capable hands it's range is over a mile, it can be moved, set up and shot by one person if need be. Available now, and yet society has survived.

Exactly. And there's NO protection against it. No body armor on the planet can stop a .50

RE: I may seem callous, but...
By epobirs on 4/14/2011 8:41:32 AM , Rating: 3
Or it could just be used to fill a house with popcorn until comes bursting out the windows.

“We do believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” -- Steve Jobs

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