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
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
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.